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If or Whether? We’ll Tell You When to Use Which Word and Why

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“Whether” and “if” are often used interchangeably. But in formal writing, they have a distinct use. We’ll tell you what they are.

The message of your sentence might change depending on which of these two words you use.
Whether vs. If—Is There a Difference?
Correct Use

  • Whether and if are both subordinating conjunctions (words that combine clauses or sentences).
  • Use if when writing a conditional sentence.
    • You can use the back door if the front door is locked.
  • Whether is used to show that there is more than one option available.
    • She was deciding on whether she should attend Stanford or Harvard.

Deciding when to use one English word over the other sometimes seems more like a matter of intuition over knowledge. Take for example whether and if. In casual speech, they are often used interchangeably. But in formal writing, there’s a distinction between the two. Whether you’re an English language learner or a native speaker, you might want to continue reading if you want to learn the difference.


“If” or “Whether”

Let’s start with the basics. A conjunction is a type of word that joins other words in a sentence together. If and whether are examples of subordinating conjunctions, meaning they link subordinate clauses (phrases that have a subject and a verb but cannot stand alone) to the rest of the sentence.

You can play outside if you clean your room.

In this example, “if you clean your room” is the subordinate clause.

There are instances, especially in casual speech and writing, where whether and if can be used interchangeably.

The students didn’t know whether their teacher would be on time.
The students didn’t know if their teacher would be on time.

The sentence’s meaning doesn’t change, regardless of which word is in use: the students weren’t sure about the teacher’s punctuality. However, the words have distinct roles in other cases and should be used appropriately.

If and weather are very similar, but not the same.
“If” and “whether” are both subordinating conjunctions.
Quick Tip

Don’t confuse whether with weather—which means “the state of the atmosphere with respect to heat or cold, wetness or dryness, calm or storm, or clearness or cloudiness” when used as a noun. As a verb, weather means “to bear up against” or “come safely through”.


When to Use “If”

The rule is simple. Use if when you have a conditional sentence. A conditional sentence is one that cites known facts (zero conditional), refers to something that may happen in the future (first conditional), to hypothetical situations (second conditional), and imaginary or hypothetical situations in the past (third conditional). If, not whether, is always used in these types of sentences.

Zero Conditional:

If it rains, the grass outside will get wet.

First Conditional:

We’ll go to Disney World if you get good grades.

Second Conditional:

If I were rich, I would buy my mom a house.

Third Conditional:

I would have called you if I had known about the accident.

When to Use “Whether”

Use whether to show that there is more than one option available.

Samantha didn’t know whether she was going to dine at a Chinese or Indian restaurant.

In this sentence, Samantha knew she was dining out but wasn’t sure what type of cuisine she was going to eat. Now, let’s replace whether with if.

Samantha didn’t know if she was going to dine at a Chinese or Indian restaurant.

This sentence implies that Samantha may dine at a Chinese restaurant, an Indian restaurant, or not dine at all.

Correct: Samantha didn’t mind whether they went out to eat or not.

Avoid: Samantha didn’t mind if they went out to eat or not.


Remember

When showing that there are multiple options, avoid using if because it may incorrectly imply another option. This is one of the many style suggestions LanguageTool can offer. Additionally, this practical and easy-to-use writing assistant can check your spelling and grammar to ensure your writing is flawless.

Although using whether or if interchangeably is common, it’s best to know their distinctions, especially in formal settings. Use if for conditional sentences and whether when showing there is more than one option. If you don’t know the difference, your readers might interpret a different message, whether you meant it or not.


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