Word Choice: If vs. Whether
  • 3-minute read
  • 19th January 2020

Word Choice: If vs. Whether

We have a slightly unusual word choice post today, as we’re looking at “if” and “whether.” Although these words look and sound different, they overlap in meaning. And this means they’re often misused. To help you avoid errors, then, check out our short guide to how they should be used below.

Yes/No Questions (“Whether” or “If”)

A lot of the confusion arises because “whether” and “if” both imply uncertainty. They can therefore be used interchangeably when referring to something that could be posed as a yes/no question. For example:

I’m not sure if my grammar is correct.

I’m not sure whether my grammar is correct.

These sentences are not yes/no questions, but they could be rephrased as one (i.e., “Is my grammar correct?”). As such, either term can be used here, although “whether” is the more formal choice in cases like this.

Conditional Statements (“If” Only)

The only time “if” must be used instead of “whether” is in a conditional sentence (i.e., when setting out a condition for something else to occur):

If you make an error, I will correct it.

Whether you make an error, I will correct it.

“Whether” is wrong here because it implies more than one possibility. But, in this case, we’re simply setting out a condition and a consequence.

Choices (“Whether” Only)

In other situations, we typically use “whether” instead of “if.” A common error is using “if” when referring to a choice between two or more options:

I need to decide whether I’m going to write a story or an essay. (Choice)

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I need to decide if I’m going to write a story or an essay. (Conditional)

The “whether” sentence is presenting a choice: writing a story or an essay. The “if” sentence is conditional:  the speaker is deciding whether to write anything, not what to write. And while both sentences are grammatical, they differ in meaning, so the second one would be incorrect if describing a choice.

The same distinction applies even when the second option is only implied:

Let the examiner know whether you need help. (Choice)

Let the examiner know if you need help. (Conditional)

In the first sentence, we’re told to inform someone whether or not we need help (i.e., a response is required either way). In the second, we’re told to ask for help only if we need it. And the difference between these two is key!

“Whether” is also preferred after prepositions and before infinitive verbs.

As a result, the best approach is typically to only use “if” for conditionals, as “whether” is correct (or more formal) in more situations.

Summary: Whether or If?

We have seen that “if” and “whether” are interchangeable in some cases, which can make them confusing. But remember:

  • Uncertainty: You can use both “if” and “whether” to express uncertainty.
  • Conditional Sentences: You should only use “if” for conditionals (i.e., when setting out a condition for something to occur or happen).
  • Choices: Only use “whether” for choices between two or more options.

In addition, “whether” is more formal than “if” in most situations. As such, it is often the best term, except in conditional sentences (which always use “if”). And if you would like any more help with word choice in your writing, our proofreaders are always available to check your work.

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