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If / Whether

Is it a condition or an alternative?

Wanting cell service on a mountain location

 

 

 

A Condition vs. an Alternative

CONDITION

In many cases, if and whether can be used interchangeably without affecting the meaning.  Below are some subtle differences in formal use. Use if to indicate one condition that requires an action. If X is true, then do Y.

SUBJ + PREDICATE CONDITION

Let me know
 

if you get cell phone reception.  (one condition)

 

 

He asked me

if I had an idea.  (one condition) 

ALTERNATIVE

Use whether to indicate two conditions, alternates, that require an action: yes or no,  X or Y.  If X or Y is true, then do Z.  (Note that both if or whether are commonly used in an embedded question.)

SUBJ + PREDICATE ALTERNATIVE CONDITIONS

Let me know

whether or not you can get cell phone reception.  (two conditions)

 

whether you can get cell phone reception or not . (polar + / –)

He asked me

whether I had an idea or a plan. (X or Y)

 

Alternative (n.) – being one or the other
Polar condition – yes/no, + / –
Also see Indirect Speech: Yes/No Question Clauses
Solution - lightbulbPop-Q "If / Whether"

 

 

 

Two Options for Expressing Alternatives

IF…OR

If is less commonly used when both sides of an alternative are given.

SUBJ + PREDICATE ALTERNATIVE CONDITIONS

He asked me

if my phone was receiving cell service or not. (informal)

He wasn't sure

if I was using ATT or Verizon mobile service. (informal)

WHETHER…OR

Whether is more commonly used when alternatives are stated.

SUBJ + PREDICATE ALTERNATIVE CONDITIONS

He asked me

whether my phone was receiving cell service or not.

He wasn't sure

whether I was using ATT or Verizon mobile service.

 

Alternative (n.) – being one or the other
Polar condition – yes/no, + / –

 

 

 

 

 

 

If / Whether

After a Preposition

cell reception on a beach

 

 

 

After a Preposition

VERB + PREP + IF

After a verb + preposition  (VP), if sounds awkward with alternative (polar) options. Use whether instead.

SUBJ + VERB–PREP *IF-CLAUSE

*I was concerned about

 if we could get cell phone reception or not.

*We were interested in

 if we could receive cell service on the mountain top or not. 

*We're not sure about

 if a cell phone would work there or not. 

VERB + PREP + WHETHER

After a verb + preposition   (VP), use whether with alternative (polar) options.

SUBJ + VERB–PREP WHETHER-CLAUSE

I was concerned about

whether we could get cell phone reception or not

We were interested in

whether we could receive cell service on the mountain top or not

We're not sure about

whether a cell phone would work there or not

 

*Yellow highlighted words are examples of incorrect or not preferred usage.
VP – verb phrase

 

 

 

 

If / Whether

Before an Infinitive

Searching for cell service

 

 

 

Before an Infinitive

IF

If is avoided before an infinitive phrase with alternatives.

SUBJ + VERB *IF-CLAUSE

I can't decide

*if to move to the right or to the left. 

It was unclear 

*if to stand in the middle of the room or near the window.

WHETHER

Whether is used before an infinitive phrase with alternatives.

SUBJ + VERB WHETHER-CLAUSE

I can't decide

whether to move to the right or to the left.

It was unclear

whether to stand in the middle of the room or near the window.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If / Whether

Embedded clause

Cell Phones work here

 

 

 

 Indirect / Reported Questions

IF

If is commonly used to restate a question.  See indirect questions.  Some formal usage restricts if before a conditional clause.

WILL MY PHONE WORK HERE?

I don't know if my cell phone will work here. (condition)

I don't know if my cell phone will work here or not. (alternative–polar)

I don't know if my phone will work better inside or outside(alternative–X or Y)

WHETHER

Whether is also commonly used to restate (embed) a question.  Whether is preferred before an alternative.

WILL MY PHONE WORK HERE?

I don't know whether my cell phone will work here. (condition)

I don't know whether my phone will work here or not.
I don't know whether or not my phone will work here.  (alternative–polar)

I don't know whether my cell phone will work better inside or outside(alternative–X or Y)

 

See Indirect Speech: Yes / No Question Clauses

 

 

 

 

 

 

If / Whether

Formal Context

 

 

If vs. Whether Formality

IF

If is not commonly used in formal contexts when introducing an alternative clause. (This is an unusual, old rule that is still included in college English entrance exams.)

FORMAL *not used

The President declined to say

*if  he would give up his personal Blackberry.

The Congressman was uncertain

*if   the health bill would pass.

INFORMAL IF-CLAUSE

My friend didn't say

if she would give up her cell phone.

Bob was uncertain

if his son would pass the 5th grade.  

WHETHER

Whether (or not) introducing an alternative clause is used both formally and informally.

FORMAL WHETHER-CLAUSE

The President declined to say

whether he would give up his personal Blackberry.

The Congressman was uncertain

whether the health bill would pass.

INFORMAL WHETHER-CLAUSE

My friend didn't say

whether she would give up her cell phone.  

Bob was uncertain

whether his son would pass the 5th grade.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

If / Whether

Sentence Position

 

 

Sentence Position

IF

If is not used in a clause at the beginning of a sentence when introducing an alternative. (This is not true for conditional clauses.)

SUBJECT VERB + COMPLEMENT

*If the battery is charged

is my biggest concern.  (NOT used)

*If my cell phone works there

is a mystery to me.  (NOT used)

SUBJECT VERB + ALTERNATIVE

My biggest concern

is if the battery is charged (or not). (uncommonly used)

It is a mystery to me

if my cell phone works there (or not).  (uncommonly used)

CONDITIONAL  IF-CLAUSE RESULT CLAUSE

If my cell phone works there,

I'll be surprised.  (condition - commonly used)

If the battery is charged,

my phone works well.  (condition - commonly used)

WHETHER

Whether is more commonly used in a clause at the beginning of a sentence when introducing an alternative. (The alternative words or not are optionally included.)

SUBJECT VERB + COMPLEMENT

Whether (or not) the battery is charged

is my biggest concern. (alternative) 

Whether my cell phone works there

is a mystery to me. (alternative) 

SUBJECT ALTERNATIVE

My biggest concern

is whether the battery is charged (or not) (alternative)

It is a mystery to me

whether (or not) my cell phone works there (alternative)

CONDITIONAL IF-CLAUSE RESULT CLAUSE

Whether or not the battery is charged,

my phone doesn't work. (no condition exists - even if)

Whether or not my cell phone works there,

I won't accept calls. (no condition exists - even if)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Summary

Whether vs. if

 

 

IF

In the following situations, speakers favor using if.

REPORTED SPEECH

I asked them if they were leaving.
I asked them, "Are you leaving?"

SLIGHTLY LESS FORMAL

I asked him if he is going to visit. (informal context)
I asked him whether he would visit. (more formal)

CONDITIONAL

I asked him questions if he was not to busy.
I asked him questions when he was not to busy.

WHETHER

In the following situations, speakers prefer using whether.

WITH WORDS USED IN FORMAL CONTEXTS

We inquired whether the President would attend the summit meeting.  (investigate, explain, examine, study, decide, determine)

WHEN STRESSED IN SPEECH

We must ask ourselves whether we will accept failure.

BEFORE "OR NOT" / REGARDLESS

We are leaving whether you like it or not.  (no option exists)

DOUBT + "OR NOT" / ALTERNATIVE

We don't know whether we are going or not.  (doubt, can't say, be uncertain— about an alternative)

BEFORE AN INFINITIVE

We can't decide whether to leave or to stay.

AFTER A PREPOSITION

We were worried about whether you would like it.

AFTER "THE QUESTION IS…"

The main question is whether they are going also. (the problem is, the undecided point is)

iNITIAL POSITION / SUBJECT

Whether are going is the question.

 

Related page  Yes-No Question Cls

 

 

 

 

Grammar Notes

Traditional and Linguistic Description

Advanced

 

 

TRADITIONAL DESCRIPTION LINGUISTIC DESCRIPTION

Noun Clauses Beginninng with If or Whether. When a yes/no question is change to a noun clause, whether or if is used to introduce the clause. I don't know if / whether she wil come. (Azar 13-3) 

 

If , whether
connective.adverb clause of condition ; whether or not is similar in meaning to even if. (Azar 17-8, 19-9) 
subordinating conjunction  (Swan 256, 510.3, 621)

If , whether
Subordinator  (Huddleston 11.5.2)
Circumstance adverbial subordinator  (Biber 842)

 

Construction where only whether is permitted.

  • We are leaving whether /*if you like it or not. (exhaustive conditional construction [it doesn't matter that…])
  • We can't decide whether /*if  to leave. (infinitive clause)
  • I don't know whether /*if or not we are going. [or not + clause]
    I don't know whether / if we are going or not. [ clause + or not]
  • The problem is whether/*if we have a car. [The question is…]
  • Some verbs favor whether: (explain, investigate, ponder, study) We will investigate whether the Mayor was involved in this matter.

Construction where if is favored:

  • Reports of indirect questions: I asked them if they had seen my dog.
  • Style: if is slightly more informal than whether: We asked him if he was going to be a little late.

(Huddleston 11 §5.2)

Categories:  NP –noun phrase; N – noun; VP – verb phrase; V – verb; Detdeterminer; PP – prepositional phrase; P – preposition; AdvP – adverb phrase; Adv – adverb; AdjP– adjective phrase; Adj – adjective; Subord – Subordinator;  Coord – Coordinator; Interj – Interjection

Functions: Subject:  Subject,   Predicate: Predicator (V) Complement:  elements required by the verb: object, indirect object, predicative complement  Adjuncts: (optional modifiers) Adj,  Adv

 

Resources

 

 

 

 

Practice

Beach Rules

Beach      No Dogs
Signs at the entrance to a beach in Greece
 

 

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