The words ‘if’ and ‘whether’ are often used interchangeably. In most cases, it isn’t a problem. Sometimes, though, it can lead to awkwardness or misunderstanding.
‘If’ is associated with a cause and its effect, as in ‘If X (cause), then Y (effect)’.
If I go on that ride, I will feel sick.
The melon will explode if you drop it from the tenth storey window.
In each case, the sentence suggests a predictable outcome.
If you want to indicate options, you need to change the form of the sentence. (Note the use of ‘if’ here, too).
In speech, you might hear this:
If I go on that ride or not, I will feel sick.
(Two potential ‘causes’; same result. Sickness is looming, regardless)
The melon will explode if you drop it from the tenth storey window, or not.
(It’s sure to go ‘boom’. There’s a third possible cause: an explosive?)
The ‘if… or not’ construction isn’t really correct language, though, and it’s clumsy when written.
There’s a better way.
The construction ‘whether’ or ‘whether … or not’ is associated with presenting options, alternatives or uncertainties.
Replace ‘if’ with ‘whether’ in the two examples above. The meaning will be understood and it sounds better. Sometimes, it’s better when the ‘or not’ comes immediately after ‘whether’.
Whether or not I go on that ride, I will feel sick.
The melon will explode whether you drop it from the tenth storey window, or not.
It isn’t only about strict accuracy. Choosing the wrong word can mangle meaning, which is worse.
Situations where you need to use ‘whether’ (whether you like it or not)
Look at these examples:
I don’t know whether I’ll give the prize to Sam or Jo.
This clearly says you will reward one or the other; you’re simply uncertain as to who it will be.
I don’t know if I’ll give the prize to Sam or Jo
Here, you’re suggesting you might not give the prize to either of them and you might award it to someone else, or not at all.
That adds up to poor communication.
Let me know whether you are going to the meeting.
This instruction clearly asks for a reply: you might be going or not, but someone wants to know either way.
Let me know if you are going to the meeting
This sentence means someone wants a reply only if you are going.
This is also poor communication. It creates doubt about the intended meaning of the instruction and can lead to confusion.
I can’t tell you whether they work from home.
This says you don’t know their working arrangements; they might be either home or office based.
I can’t tell you if they work from home.
This sentence, it suggests, in the event they are working remotely, that you aren’t allowed to reveal it.
In each case, ‘whether’ prevents ambiguity.
Effective communication isn’t just about language rules. It involves a clear message from the sender and accurate interpretation by the receiver.
Just for fun and going partly off the subject …. Who remembers this rhyme?
Whether the weather be cold
Whether the weather be hot
Whatever the weather, we’ll weather the weather
Whether we like it or not.
See more ways to Be Word Wise.