“If” vs. “Whether”

This week, I’ve created a new category of blog post called “Advanced Grammar.” This category is for the things they don’t teach you in school, even in college. This category is also for controversial grammar-related issues or those that I can’t find a satisfactory answer to, some of which I’ve already written about here and here. Without further ado, let’s examine “if” and “whether.”

Both “if” and “whether” are meant to be used when discussing possibilities or uncertain events. There is, however, a slight distinction, and saying “if” when “whether” would be more appropriate is one of those colloquialisms (i.e., common phenomena in speech) that often makes its way into formal writing.

For example, you might say, “Please bring me a bag of chips if you’re going to the kitchen.” That is, “In case you’re going to the kitchen, I’m putting in a request for a bag of chips.”

And you might muse aloud, as you munch away on said chips, “I’m not sure if this constitutes breaking my diet.” The meaning of this statement is clear enough, but if we examine it as we did the previous one, we come away with something like “In case this constitutes breaking my diet, I’m not sure.” That is, the speaker’s being not sure depends upon the condition that he or she is breaking his or her diet being true. This kind of possible misconstruance (even if unlikely) is a hazard of having “if” do the job of “whether.”

Saying “I’m not sure whether this constitutes breaking my diet” is better. This is because although you’re talking about something that may or may not be true (breaking your diet), the rest of your sentence (“I’m not sure”) doesn’t depend on it. Your being not sure is a fact—a certainty—with two related options: breaking your diet or not breaking your diet. In either case, you’re not sure.

Please note that “or not” is often implied rather than expressed, especially at the end of a sentence. That is, don’t use the apparent existence of only one option as a signal to use “if” instead of “whether.” To say “I’m not sure if/whether this constitutes breaking my diet” is to say “I’m not sure if/whether this constitutes breaking my diet (or not).”

Instead, look at whether you’re (a) introducing options (discussing alternatives, if you like) or (b) making a conditional statement. (Do you see what I did there?) A conditional statement communicates something that is true only if something else is true. For example, “If we’re going to the party, we’d better get ready” communicates “we’d better get ready” if it’s true that we’re going to the party. Whereas “Whether we’re going to the party (or not), we need to put gas in the car” communicates that putting gas in the car is something that needs to happen no matter what.

“I’ll ask him, but whether he says yes or no, I’m still going to do it” is better than “I’ll ask him, but if he says yes or no, I’m still going to do it.” That’s because saying yes or no is assured. Either he will say yes, or he will say no. “I’m still going to do it” is not conditional.

I can put this in another way, if it helps: Use “if” when making a proposal and use “whether” when talking about a choice.

(Proposal) “If you give me cash, you can have it.”
(Choice) “I don’t care whether you pay me in pounds, dollars, or euros.”

Yet another rule of thumb is this: any time you’re expressing an uncertainty or doubt, use “whether.”
He would pass the test only if he could focus. Whether the Ritalin would do enough to help, he didn’t know.

If all of these tips don’t help you, I’ll bet that you’re trying to figure out a case where “if” or “whether” comes in the middle of a sentence. Here’s a trick you can use: mentally rewrite the sentence so that “if” or “whether” is the first word. Then your choice should be clearer. Here’s an example:

“I don’t know if I’ll go to the party. It depends on if you’re going.”
You’d probably agree that the following sounds weird:
“If I’ll go to the party I don’t know. If you’re going it depends on.”
So swap out those “ifs” for “whethers”:
“I don’t know whether I’ll go to the party. It depends on whether you’re going.”

So that’s the best advice I can give you. Questions? Refer back to this blog if you need to when writing! Subscribe for more tips on grammar, spelling, punctuation, and other things that make for good writing. And please try to avoid “regardless of whether”; there’s usually no good reason for it.

One Comment on ““If” vs. “Whether””

  1. […] of using “if” twice, especially when the second “if” is a good example of where “whether” is preferable, how often have amendments that have NOT passed cost you anything? Of course the amendment would […]

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