ESL grammar · Grammar · writing tips

How to Use Whether (And Some Words about If)

It’s not the Same as If…

By Jacqueline Schaalje

surfing

This subject is on request.

If you’re a beginning learner of English, this subject is probably going to be too advanced for you.

When Do You Use Whether?

Whether is a kind of if, but you use it in specific situations. The situation has to be one where you can answer yes or no. Or: something can happen, or it can not happen.

For instance, I don’t know whether I’ll go surfing this afternoon. It depends on the waves. If there’s a lot of wind, I won’t go. If there’s a nice breeze, I will go. If there are no wind and no waves, I won’t go.

So in this situation I can either go or I won’t go. Yes or no. So here I have to use whether.

I can make different kinds of sentences about this same situation.

Have a look at these examples:

I don’t know whether I’ll go surfing this afternoon. (I go surfing: yes or no.)

I don’t know whether the waves will be good for surfing this afternoon. (The waves are good: yes or no.)

Whether I’ll go surfing this afternoon depends on the waves. (I’ll go surfing: yes or no.)

The Place of Whether in the Sentence

So as you can see, whether can be in the middle of two sentences to make a complex sentence.

Or it can be at the beginning of the sentence.

Whether can never be at the end of the sentence, as it has to be followed by a proposition (a condition).

Here’s another example:

A problem that many people struggle with is that you can’t always know whether what you do is right or wrong. (People do something right, yes or no.)

Or in fewer words:

People don’t always know whether they’re right or wrong. (People are right, yes or no.)

Or:

You can’t always know whether you’re choosing the right course of action. (You choose right, yes or no.)

It’s hard to say whether we should go north or go south. (Go north, yes or no.)

Do you know whether we should go north? (Or south? – Go north, yes or no.)

Here’s one more example:

basketballI doubt whether Don will make the basketball team.

This means that Don will probably not be good enough to be in the basketball team. But he could also be good enough after all.

So there is a possibility that yes, he will be in the team. Or no, he won’t be.

So there is a yes/no option > use whether.

whether

Use Whether for Two Alternatives

You should also use whether when there is a choice of two alternatives, so when there are two different things available. They don’t have to be opposites.

Here’s an example of that:

Janine and Humbert are discussing whether to go to the Salty Grill or to La Vega.

(They’re two different restaurants.)

The Salty Grill or La Vega aren’t two opposites, but just two different things.

Janine and Humbert can go here, or they can go there.

In a case like this you use whether, too.

Here’s another example of two alternatives (or more):

Whether you are carnivore, vegetarian or vegan, we are sure to serve you something you like.

So here there are three options: carnivore, vegetarian or vegan. (I’m carnivore: yes or no, I’m vegetarian: yes or no, etc.)

When to Use If and when Whether?

It follows from the above explanation that you don’t always need to use whether. There are also cases where “if” is the right connector to use.

Use if in cases where there aren’t two (or more) options available, or where it’s not a question of yes or no.

Here are some examples where you can use only if:

If you’re ready, come and see what the other students have made.

Here you can’t use whether, because the sentence isn’t true when the person isn’t ready. If they’re not ready, they shouldn’t come. So here there isn’t a situation where there are two alternatives.

If you’re not a hundred percent sure of what I’ve just said, try to put “or not” into the sentence, like this:

If you’re ready (or not), come and see what the other students have made.

Does this make sense?

No, it doesn’t. Because we don’t want this person to come if they’re not ready.

So this is not a sentence where I have to use “whether.”

Okay.

Or not okay?

Let’s try another one:

I’ll go on that kayaking trip, if I can scrape the money together (= if I can have enough money).

Can you use whether instead of if?

No, you can’t.

Try for yourself:

I’ll go on that kayaking trip, whether (or not) I can scrape the money together.

The point here is not that this person goes on a kayaking trip if they have the money, and also when they don’t have the money, but only when they have the money. So here there is no yes money and no money, so you can’t use whether. (If introduces a conditional, if you’d like to put it in a more technical way.)

Please note: In the yes/no situations that we discussed in the beginning of this article there are some people who use if. Most English speakers would prefer whether. Certainly, in writing and in formal language you must use whether in the correct way.

Quiz – This definitely is an Expert Level Quiz! (Hard)

Choose whether or if.

Whether Click here to do this quiz online.

 

Want to learn more?

Here are some more quizzes and articles about conjunctions:

And, But, However: Using the Right Connectors

Conjunctions of Addition

How to Use However

 

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