Small Things That Matter #1: “If” vs. “Whether”

I have decided to begin a new series of posts entirely dedicated to the little BUT IMPORTANT elements of English writing that seemed to have disappeared from the K-12 system

I am starting with “if” and “whether” not because I think it is the most important, but because I read yet another article in the New York Times today where “if” was used incorrectly and writing about it seemed better than having my head explode.

First, the basics:

Use “if” to express a condition.

  • CORRECT: Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.
  • WRONG: I don’t know if he’s ready for my New York game.

Use “whether” to express alternatives.

  • CORRECT: Many of the assembled are questioning whether he is conservative enough.
  • CORRECT: Their six-month truce comes to an end today, and neither is sure whether to renew it.
  • WRONG: The officer told the investigator he was not sure if he fired his weapon.

Use either “if” or “whether” with:

1) Indirect questions.

  • No one knows for sure whether/if Iran has the rest of the components needed for a bomb.
  • He’s not sure whether/if he’s scored enough points with Santa to be getting one of those in his stocking.

2) Yes / No questions.

  • He wasn’t even sure if/whether he did any good.
  • She could not remember if/whether he brought his coat.

Clearly, it is not simply a matter of knowing the rules or more people would get it right. So, let’s get geeky and try to tattoo this on the grammar sections of our brains.

Be advised! We are heading into grammar term territory.

1) After a preposition, use “whether.”

If you don’t know what a preposition is, hop over here and have yourself a bit of study. If you have a general sense of the little buggers, then you are ready to follow the rule: preposition + choice of  “if” or “whether” = “whether”

  • CORRECT: For actions on a site that might be considered private, shouldn’t users have the choice about whether to make them public?
  • CORRECT: The test for whether such internal loans make economic sense is exactly the same as the test for external loans.
  • WRONG: “Batman is Batman, regardless of if Bush is in the White House or not,” he said.

2) Before infinitives, use “whether.”

Same first step, if you don’t know what infinitives are, study on them here.

  • CORRECT: The clinic workers, who have been detained for two months while authorities decide whether to charge them, deny that they did anything wrong.

But don’t be misled into using “whether” rather than “if” preceding an infinitive if the “if” is part of the conjunction “as if.”

  • EXAMPLE: As if to ward off the mayhem outside, the soldiers have held to some military rituals.

You would have gotten that on your own, right? Really, how incoherent would the sentence be? “As whether to ward off the mayhem outside, the soldiers have held to some military rituals.”

3) When the sentence contains a two-part option with “or,” use “whether.”

  • CORRECT: The captain said he could not remember whether they had asked for the money or demanded it.
  • CORRECT: They were asked whether they had modified their views as a result of their visit to the Soviet Union
  • WRONG: It’s not clear if they simply failed to consider the privacy implications or thought about it and decided it didn’t matter.

4). If the “alternatives” lead the sentence, use “whether.” In other words, if instead of being connected by “or” the two-part option begins the sentence, you still use “whether.”

  • CORRECT: Whether they spoke for Progressive or reactionary candidates, they took the view that the incumbent was out of it.
  • WRONG: Asked if the rabbit in cream sauce could be split in half or must the kept whole, the waiter shrugged.

5) When the clause containing the “option” is a subject or a predicate nominative, it’s best to use “whether.” (”If” is acceptable in some circumstances but not preferred so why risk it?)

  • CORRECT: Henry is certainly a capable chef, but whether he can master the intricacies of Vietnamese soup is another question.

(”Whether” is the subject of the verb “is.”)

  • CORRECT: The question is whether I buy a TV or something more important.”

(”[W]hether I buy a TV” is the question and the question is “whether I buy a TV.” They are connected by a linking verb, making the “whether” clause a complement/predicate nominative. Do I need to tell you again to go the website if you don’t know the parts of a sentence?

  • WRONG: The question is if the lingering bitterness from the port deal is going to outweigh the stretched hand of needy institutions.

Okay. That’s enough of that. Best of luck out there.

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  1. says

    A friendly little jab from a fellow editor/writer who agrees that little things matter in writing and who appreciates this site.

    If you don’t know whether you need an editor before you post your material to your site, check out this sentence you wrote above:

    “Same first step, if you don’t know what infinitive are, study on them here.”

    Infinitive are? :-)

  2. says

    The truly amazing thing is how many years and how many reads these pages have survived and STILL there are errors. Thank you so much for taking the time to help clean the copy.

  3. says

    Time and again, I hear the line, ” …whether OR NOT…” from the news anchors and field reporters on CNN. Is this a correct grammatical construction? If yes, when and in what context do you use it? Many thanks!

  4. Miker says

    Explain to me how these two examples differ from each other:

    WRONG: The officer told the investigator he was not sure if he fired his weapon.

    Use either “if” or “whether” with:

    1) Indirect questions.

    No one knows for sure whether/if Iran has the rest of the components needed for a bomb.

    Seems to me like the second example should use whether, not if.

  5. Chuck Lewis says

    I typed “He wondered if John would try.” into Grammarly’s trial page. If you’re wondering *whether* to spring for a grammar checker, you might think twice…Grammarly found no issues with what I had typed!

  6. Cait says

    Question: I am not sure if he is my favorite author.
    Would the simple predicate just be “am”? What about that second “is”? What is the term for a part of a sentence that starts with “if”?

  7. David Kern says

    I came across your website today–am really enjoying it!

    I wonder if you might clarify for me something regarding transitive verbs:

    Although I have read many times in grammar books and dictionaries that a transitive verb requires a direct object, I teach my students that a passive voice verb can be a transitive verb because there is still a receiver of the action. In this passive voice example–“He was praised by the school director.”–I tell my students that WAS PRAISED is a transitive verb phrase because the subject of the sentence, HE, receives the action.

    I realize that the voice can be changed to reflect the active and that then there is a stated direct object in the sentence–“The school director praised him.” However, is not the above-mentioned passive voice verb example WAS PRAISED a transitive verb even though there is no stated direct object?

    Thank you for your help.



  8. says

    You are correct. Passive voice verbs are transitive. You are also correct the HE receives the action. And you are also correct that when the sentence is written in active voice, the pronoun changes from HE to HIM, making it very easy to see the direct object. All that to say that in the passive voice, the person/place/thing receiving the passive action is the proof of a transitive verb. Hope that helps.

  9. Robin says

    I have to say, the complex sentences are getting in the way of my comprehension of the explanation….and I am a native English speaker.

  10. Dave says

    @David Kern -Actually the verb in a passive construction is INTRANSITIVE. As you know, a passive construction is when the grammatical subject undergoes the action or change of state expressed by the verb; whereas in an active construction it is the object which undergoes this.
    Thus, semantically, yes, the ‘he’ in ‘he was praised’ is playing the same patient role as ‘him’ in ‘he praised him’. But, grammatically speaking, the passive phrase ‘he was praised’ consists solely of the subject and the verb it governs; by definition it cannot be transitive because there is no grammatical direct object. Converting an active expression to a passive one therefore changes a transitive verb (transitive because it has a direct object) to an intransitive one (by deleting the original object and making it the subject). Verbs in the passive are thus intransitive.
    I hope that sorts you out.

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