Grammar-QuizzesConnectivesSubordinators › If vs. Whether

If vs. Whether

Express a condition vs. an alternative option

Wanting cell service on a mountain location
 

If or Whether in a conditional statement and a restated question

CONDITIONAL STATEMENT

Use if  in a present or future conditional to express uncertainty about whether an action will occur.  In the event the particular action (condition) occurs, then the other event is likely to occur. ( If X is true, then do Y.) This is for a single occurence not routine responses to a situation. (See If vs. When.)

MAIN CLAUSE CONDITIONAL
SUBJ + PREDICATE IF + CLAUSE [PP]

Please call me

if I you get cellular (phone) reception. 

"in the situation that"

I will call you

cellular strength

if I have cell reception. 

SUBJ + PREDICATE WHETHER + CLAUSE [PP]

I will call you

 

*whether I have cell reception. 

RESTATED QUESTION  WITH  ALTERNATIVE OPTIONS

Use if or whether to restate a question with alternative options: (1) polar-opposite [yes or no] , (2) alternative [X or Y] , or (3) one [of two]. In many cases, if and whether can be used interchangeably without affecting the meaning; however, there are some differences.  (See sections below.)

MAIN CLAUSE SUBORDINATED QUESTION
SUBJ + PREDICATE WHETHER + CLAUSE [Cls]

My friend asked

whether or not I had cell reception.  (yes/no)

whether I had cell reception or not.

My friend asked

cellular strength

whether I had one or two bars.  (X or Y)

SUBJ + PREDICATE IF / WHETHER + CLAUSE [Cls]

He wanted to know

whether I had cell (phone) reception. (yes)

if I had cell (phone) reception.  (yes)

 

*not used / ~borderline usage

alternative (N/Adj) – being one or the other

restated question— also called an indirect question, embedded question, subordinated question (See Grammar Notes below.)

if—in a conditional statement is a connective preposition. The structure is a prepositional phrase [PP]. See Connective Prepositions or Conditionals.

if or whether—in an embedded question is a subordinator. The structure is a subordinated clause [Cls]. See Subordinators, Yes/No Question Clauses, If vs. Whether (in subordinate clauses) | Pop-Q "If / Whether".

Whether or not X  / Whether X or notor not occurs after whether or after the option. The meaning does not change.

 

 

 

 

If or Whether with Two Options

Express alternative options as possible answers

 

 

If or Whether in restated yes/no questions

IF…OR

If is more commonly used to express one option as an answer. (The other option can be understood from the context.)

MAIN CLAUSE SUBORDINATED QUESTION
SUBJ + PREDICATE IF + CLAUSE

He asked me

if my phone was receiving cell service.

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 to express alternatives (yes/no, X/Y)

MAIN CLAUSE SUBORDINATED QUESTION 
SUBJ + PREDICATE WHETHER + CLAUSE

He asked me

whether my phone was receiving cell service.

whether my phone was receiving cell service or not.

He wasn't sure

whether I was using ATT or Verizon mobile service.

 

 

 

 

 

Whether After a Preposition

Commenting on a situation

cell reception on a beach
 

If or Whether after a preposition

VERB + PREP + IF

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

MAIN CLAUSE SUBORDINATED QUESTION
SUBJ + PREDICATE IF + CLAUSE

I was concerned about

 *if we could receive a mobile phone signal or not.

We were interested in

* if we could receive a mobile phone signal on the mountain top or not. 

We're not sure about

*if we could receive a mobile phone signal there or not.

VERB + PREP + WHETHER

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

MAIN CLAUSE SUBORDINATED QUESTION 
SUBJ + PREDICATE WHETHER + CLAUSE

I was concerned about

whether we could receive a mobile phone signal or not

We were interested in

whether we could receive a mobile phone signal on the mountain top or not

We're not sure about

whether a mobile phone would work there or not

 

*not used / ~borderline usage

mobile phone signal/cellular reception—relative signal strength sent from a cell tower to a mobile phone

 

 

 

 

Whether before an Infinitive

Expressing alternatives

Searching for cell service
 

If or Whether before an infinitive

IF

If is not followed by an infinitive clause when expressing alternatives.

MAIN CLAUSE SUBORDINATED QUESTION
SUBJ + PREDICATE 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

obligationWhether is used before an infinitive clause with alternatives.

MAIN CLAUSE SUBORDINATED QUESTION 
SUBJ + PREDICATE 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 or Whether as a Verbal Complement

Express doubt about a situation

Mobile Phones work here
 

 

If or Whether clause as a verbal complement

IF

If is commonly used after a subject and predicate expressing doubt.  (I don't know, who knows, can you tell me, I have no idea, etc.) Some formal usage limits if to use before a clause with a single option and a single situation.

WILL MY PHONE WORK HERE?

I don't know if my mobile phone will work here.

I have no idea ~if my mobile phone will work here or not.

Do you know ~if my phone will work better inside or outside. 

Who knows ~if my phone will work better inside or outside. 

WHETHER

obligationWhether is also used after an expression of doubt and is preferred when expression two options (an alternative).  Whether is not limited to a single situation; it is also used for a recurring situation.

WILL MY PHONE WORK HERE?

I don't know whether my mobile phone will work here. (single situtation)

I don't know whether my mobile phone works here. (anytime)

I have no idea whether my phone will work here or not.

I have no ideawhether or not my phone will work here.

I'm unsure whether my mobile phone will work better inside or outside

I don't have a clue whether he owns a Samsung or Apple phone. 

 

*not used / ~borderline or informal usage

Also see Yes/No Question Clauses (whether)

 

 

 

 

Whether in Formal Use

Express an alternative in reported speech

 

 

If or Whether in formal use

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 IF + CLAUSE

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 mobile 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 mobile phone.  

Bob was uncertain

whether his son would pass the 5th grade.  

 

*not used / ~borderline usage

 

 

 

 

If vs. Whether

Does the clause allow "fronting"?

 

 

If or Whether

IF

If + clause is not placed at the beginning of a sentence when introducing an alternative. (However, if before a conditional statement can occur at the beginning; if allows "fronting". See Conditionals.)

SUBJECT CLAUSE VERB + COMPLEMENT

*If the battery is charged

That the battery is charged¹

is my biggest concern.  (NOT used)

*If my mobile phone works there

is a mystery to me.  (NOT used)

SUBJECT CLAUSE VERB + ALTERNATIVE

My biggest concern

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

It is a mystery to me

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

CONDITIONAL  IF + CLAUSE RESULT CLAUSE

If my mobile phone works there,

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

If the battery is charged,

my phone works well.  (condition - commonly used)

WHETHER

Whether + clause is usually placed at the beginning of a sentence when introducing an alternative. (The alternative words or not are optionally included.)

SUBJECT CLAUSE VERB + COMPLEMENT

Whether (or not) the battery is charged

is my biggest concern. (alternative) 

Whether my mobile phone works there

is a mystery to me. (alternative) 

SUBJECT CLAUSE ALTERNATIVE

My biggest concern

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

It is a mystery to me

whether (or not) my mobile 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 mobile phone works there,

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

 

*not used / ~borderline usage

fronting (N)—is a property of some connectors which allow the placement of the connector and its clause before the main clause. After he finished, he went home. [supports fronting]; *And he worked at home, she took a walk.[does not support fronting]. Also see Coordinators–Fronting.

¹Compare: *If the battery is charge is my biggest concern.~That the battery is charged is my biggest concern.It is my biggest concern that the battery is charged.  (A that-clause in the subject position sounds better when moved after "it".  See "It" as Subject Placeholder and "It" Extraposition.

 

 

 

 

Summary

Whether vs. if

 

Summary of uses for 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.

 

 

 

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Grammar Notes (Advanced)

Traditional and Linguistic Description

 

 

Traditional / ESL and Linguistic Descriptions

TRADITIONAL DESCRIPTION

Noun Clauses Beginning 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 will 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)

LINGUISTIC DESCRIPTION

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; Det – determiner; 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

 

References

  • Azar, Betty Schrampfer, and Stacy A. Hagen. Understanding and Using English Grammar. 4th ed., Pearson Education, 2009.
  • Biber, Douglas, and Stig Johansson, et al. Longman Grammar Of Spoken And Written English. Pearson Education, 1999.
  • Huddleston, Rodney D., and Geoffrey K. Pullum. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge UP, 2002.
  • Swan, Michael. Practical English Usage. 3rd ed., Oxford UP, 2005.

 

 

 

 

Practice

Beach Rules

      No Dogs Signs at the entrance to a beach in Greece
 

 

If or Whether?

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