Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Wordsmith Wednesday

Are "if" and "whether" grammatically interchangeable?

No, actually they are not, though many of us use them as though they are.  The error is one-sided.  We often use "if" when we should use "whether."  Some grammar sites set up a half dozen rules about when to use which one, but it really isn't that complicated.

Use "if" when specifying a condition.

Use "whether" when specifying an alternative or a choice.

That's it.  It really is that simple.

1)  Let me know if you are spending the night at Caleb's house.

2) When will you decide if you are attending the concert?
3)  Call me if you decide to spend the night at Caleb's house.

In each of the first two sentences, no condition is  being set forth, but an alternative is.  

"Let me know whether or not you are spending the night at Caleb's house" is what we mean.  The "or not" alternative is implied.   

Likewise with #2: "When will you decide whether or not you will attend the concert?"

#3?  Now there we have a condition.  I don't mean call me "whether or not" you decide.  An "if/then" condition has been established.  If you decide, then call.

So...IF we make the alternative clear then our choice is easier.  WHETHER OR NOT we make the alternative explicit, we have to train ourselves to choose the right word!

If you find that it takes you too long to determine whether a condition or an alternative is being offered, mentally throw in the "or not" with whether.  That only takes a millisecond and if it works, then "whether" is the correct choice!  And it almost always is...

Whether you like it or not, I'll be paying attention.  If you don't like it, then feel free to say so!

No comments: