Which to use: ‘if’ or ‘whether’?

If you’ve ever wondered whether ‘if’ is the same as ‘whether,’ this one’s for you.

If and whether are fascinating but tricky words. Both are conjunctions, and sometimes they mean the same thing. Sometimes.

Webster’s New World Dictionary includes this definition for both words: “used to introduce an indirect question.” In that case, you can use the terms interchangeably without changing the gist of the sentence:

  • Ask if she was pleased with the delivery process.
  • Ask whether she was pleased with the delivery process.

Sometimes, a writer will use if or whether to express a condition. The two words take on similar but slightly different meanings in conditional clauses. In conditional clauses, if means “on condition that; supposing that,” whereas, whether often means “in either case that,” so that the clause includes alternatives.

Here are some examples where the two words are not interchangeable:

  • If they needed more time, they should have planned accordingly.
  • Whether you choose to handle the project in-house or outsource it, you will still need to meet the deadline.
  • He will push on, whether he feels happy or sad.

Often, you’ll see the alternative or not used in conjunction with whether: whether or not. Often, the or not is not necessary, unless you intentionally wish to stress the alternative. Consider these statements:

  • Evaluate whether your corporate culture is well-suited to forming alliances.
  • It is difficult to determine whether the company will choose to invest in a new solution.
  • Whether you like the color or not is irrelevant.

Denise C. Baron is a director of global communications with Merck & Co.

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