Whether to Use “Whether” or “If”

By Mark Nichol

Sometimes, when it comes to deciding between using the word whether and employing the word if, the correct choice is obvious: “I don’t know if to turn the oven knob left or right” is obviously wrong, but the almost-identical statement “I don’t know if I should turn the oven knob left or right” is acceptable. However, because if implies probability, and whether indicates a choice between alternatives, in formal writing, the latter is more appropriate.

Similarly, “I don’t remember if I turned the oven off” is correct, but because “I don’t remember whether I turned the oven off” more clearly expresses that two alternatives exist, it is better in formal contexts.

“Turn the oven off if you are leaving” is a conditional sentence — it involves probability, not choice — and therefore if is correct. But “Turn the oven off whether or not you are leaving” conveys two alternatives, so whether is better. Note also the insertion of the phrase “or not” into the sentence: When the sense of whether is “regardless of the possible alternatives,” include the phrase.

However, in such constructions as “I don’t remember whether I turned the oven off,” because whether already has a sense of “yes or no,” “or not” is redundant.

The phrase “as to whether” to mean “about whether,” as in “I am unclear as to whether a decision has been made,” is correct, but it’s an unnecessary formality; “about whether” will do. The phrase is also somewhat pedantic in constructions such as “The question as to whether it will do any good hasn’t been answered.” Simplify to “Whether it will do any good hasn’t been determined.”

When whether follows a noun such as decision, issue, or question, it should do just that, without the word of intervening, if the phrase appears in a sentence such as “They will make a decision whether we’re there or not.” (“Or not” is necessary here because the sense of whether is “regardless.”) But if the sentence structure is something like “It’s an issue of whether they’re qualified” (here, “or not” is superfluous), of is integral.

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3 Responses to “Whether to Use “Whether” or “If””

  • Rubi

    If I need to refer to a cabinet which is at the bottom part of a podium (podium for lecture), should we use “in” or “on” or “inside” or “within” or “of”? I mean to ask, which of the following(s) is/are the correct term(s)?
    Cabinet in the podium
    Cabinet on the podium
    Cabinet inside the podium
    Cabinet within the podium
    Cabinet of the podium
    I have the confusion as, normally, podium is used as dais and “on” is used to refer objects placed on it.
    It will be great if you please clarify this for me.

  • John White

    I didn’t even know there was a hair to split until I saw how German splits it:

    wenn = if
    ob = whether

    Once I got it right in my German neurons, my English ones got the memo as well.

    Also, I’ve read that “whether or not” is poor construction, and that it should be “whether…or not”. However, I take your point that, strictly speaking, the “or not” is redundant to “whether.”

  • Precise Edit

    This is a distinction I make in both writing and speaking. However, I never thought of “if” as implying a probability. Probability has a specific meaning (think: statistics).

    Instead, I’ve always described “if” as indicating the condition for something to occur. For example, “If I get to the office early” indicates what condition is necessary for the action to follow: “I will make the coffee.”

    When using “if” to indicate a probability, the probability will always be 100%. For example, “If the day is nice, maybe we can go to the park.” In this example, if the condition is met (nice day), then there is a 100% probability that we might go to the park.

    “Which Word Do I Use?” notes that “if” is used to indicate a condition, and “whether” is used to indicate options. This distinction has always served me well.

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