How to use ЛИ in Russian to say IF / WHETHER

The particle, “ли,” means “if” or “whether.” “Ли” has two main uses in Russian: as a particle for asking yes or no questions, and as a conjunction in dependent clauses and indirect speech. Beyond this, “ли” can also be used to add emphasis to questions.

Regarding word order, when using “ли” in both questions and dependent clauses, “ли” will follow the emphasized word and/or the operative element.

Below we run through the different uses of “ли” and provide many example sentences to make sure you understand how to use “ли” in context.

Yes or no questions

“Ли” can be used as an interrogative participle in Russian to ask questions that have yes or no answers. When you use “ли” in this way, it is 100% clear that you are asking a question and are expecting an answer. Please note, using “ли” in this way is somewhat formal.

The typical word order of these interrogative phrases with “ли” involves putting the verb first (emphasized), then “ли,” then the rest of the sentence.

Without “ли”:

  • Вы читали книгу Достоевского? = Have you read the Dostoevsky book?

With “ли”:

  • Читали ли Вы книгу Достоевского? = Have you read the Dostoevsky book?

Example sentences

  • Дома ли ты? = Are you home?
  • Знаете ли Вы Александра Пушкина? = Do you know Alexander Pushkin?
  • Смотрел ли ты этот новый фильм? = Have you seen this new film?
  • Знакомы ли вы с Анной? = Do you know Anna?
  • Живут ли в Азии бегемоты? = Do hippos live in Africa?
  • Есть ли жизнь на Марсе? = Is there life on Mars?

Dependent clauses / indirect speech

Another common use of “ли” is in dependent clauses, particularly in indirect questions and speech that is relaying opinions or someone else’s words. When these phrases are translated into English, they form indirect questions using “if” or “whether.”

Just like above, the word order in these dependent clauses has “ли” following the emphasized word in a sentence, typically the verb.

You'll notice that the Russian tense in many of the example dependent clause sentences with "ли" is different from how it translates into English. In Russian sentences where the introductory clause is in the past tense, the dependent clause will typically be in the present tense, even though its meaning - as translated into English - is also in the past. This is because the introductory clause sets the stage for what tense the entire sentence is taking place in.

Without “ли”:

  • Я это хочу? Я не знаю. = Do I want this? I don’t know.

With “ли”:

  • Я не знаю, хочу ли я это. = I don't know if I want this.

The difference between ЕСЛИ and ЛИ

Often, students will make the mistake of replacing “ли” with “если.” However, “если” only means “if” in conditional clauses – not in dependent classes and indirect speech.

When to use “ли”:

  • When the subsequent clause is indirect speech someone in the first clause is describing.
  • Я не уверена, будет ли сегодня дождь. = I am not sure if it’s going to rain today.

When to use “если”:

  • When the subsequent clause happens based on a condition set up in the first clause
  • Если сегодня будет дождь, я возьму зонт. = If it rains today, I’ll take an umbrella.

Example sentences

  • Я не знаю, красивая ли эта картина. = I don't know if this painting is beautiful.
  • Он спросил, говорю ли я по-русски. = He asked if I spoke Russian.
  • Он спросил меня, хорошо ли я себя чувствую. = He asked me if I was feeling well.
  • Мама хотела узнать, хорошо ли сдал экзамен. = Mom wanted to know if you did well in the exam.
  • Я спросила своего брата, помыл ли он посуду. = I asked my brother if he had washed the dishes.

Expressions using ЛИ

Here are some idiomatic expressions that use “ли”:

вряд / едва ли = it's improbable, unlikely

  • К ужину мы вряд ли успеем вернуться. = I doubt we'll be home in time for dinner.

ой ли = it's improbable / oh it it / oh, are you?

  • Ой ли, Владимир Владимирович? = Oh, are you Vladimir Vladimirovich?

мало ли = so what / you never know / presumably / I assume

  • Может какой-то дурак, мало ли. = It's probably some lunatic, I assume.
  • Мало ли кто что говорит. = You never know who says what.

чуть ли = almost, nearly

  • Мы жили в Лондоне чуть ли не пять лет. = We lived in London for almost five years.

то ли...то ли = whether...or

  • Не пойму, на улице то ли снег, то ли дождь. = I don’t understand if it’s snowing or raining outside.
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