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I have found that the form "whether this or that" does not work so well in long sentences. Intuitively, it seems that putting an "if" after the "or" makes it flow better, but is that grammatically correct?

Example:

There is some confusion as to whether it is necessary for all of the board members to be present when the meeting is called to order and the agenda is read, or if a majority is sufficient.

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+1 Good question! My suggestion, while not a direct answer the question of whether the "if" is OK, would be to rephrase. There is just too much there for one sentence. One possible rephrase: "There is some confusion as to the requirements for the meeting to be called to order and the agenda read. Do all of the board members need to be present, or is a majority sufficient?" –  JeffSahol Sep 19 '11 at 18:22
    
@JeffSahol - I deliberately made the sentence longer than necessary in order to illustrate my point. There are many situations in which rewording is not practical. –  Dave Sep 19 '11 at 18:57
    
What's wrong with using a second "whether"? –  Peter Shor Sep 19 '11 at 19:01
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7 Answers

Looking at Google books, "or if" generally follows an initial "if", and "or whether" generally follows an initial "whether". I would suggest:

There is some confusion as to whether it is necessary for all of the board members to be present when the meeting is called to order and the agenda is read, or whether a majority is sufficient.

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Are you sure that "whether ... or whether" is proper form? –  Dave Sep 19 '11 at 19:38
    
Yes, I am. The phrase "or whether" is used nearly as often as "or if". See this Google Ngram. Since nearly all of the seach results I checked for "or whether" were used in sentences similar to mine above, while most of the instances of "if ... or if" could not be replaced by "whether", that means that "whether ... or whether" is actually more common for this usage. –  Peter Shor Sep 19 '11 at 20:18
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If you’re concerned about the sentence being too long, then break it down into two sentences. For example:

‘There is some confusion as to whether or not it is necessary for all of the board members to be present when the meeting is called to order and the agenda is read. A majority may be sufficient.’

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Replace the "whether" with an "if" and you are definitely in the clear:

There is some confusion as to if it is necessary for all of the board members to be present when the meeting is called to order and the agenda is read, or if a majority is sufficient.

(With thanks to @Peter Shor) or replace the "if" with a "whether":

There is some confusion as to whether it is necessary for all of the board members to be present when the meeting is called to order and the agenda is read, or whether a majority is sufficient.

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That sounds unnatural to me. –  Dave Sep 19 '11 at 19:37
    
It is an awkward sentence to start with, though, whether you replace the "whether" with "if", or if you replace "if" with "whether". ;) –  JeffSahol Sep 19 '11 at 19:48
    
@Dave: Personally, I think either "if" or "whether" is fine here. Mixing them sounds odd to me, but at least one answer has identified an authority who says that's fine, too, so use whatever sounds best to you. –  Peter Shor Sep 20 '11 at 15:49
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If your specific question is about whether it's OK to use both whether and if in the same sentence, the answer is yes, you're allowed to. Here's a sentence that uses both words without any error.

However, I'd present the example sentence like this:

There is some confusion as to whether it is necessary for all the board members to be present when the meeting is called to order and the agenda is read, or if the presence of a simple majority will suffice.

The issue of the quorum's adequacy is only significant with respect to next week's meeting, i.e, an event in the future. As you've started by using the all members to be form, it makes for better clarity to continue, and end, the description of the confusion with the future tense.

If that sounds pedantic, this is what the sentence is really saying:

I'm going mad trying to figure out if everybody and his uncle will have to attend next week's corporate ca-ca, or if having some of them over will do.

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While I agree that many of the options already presented do the trick (breaking the sentence, utilizing "if", etc.), and that two "whether"s seems iffy but not forbidden, it seems to me that scalar implicature usually allows one to completely forgo the additional phrase. I generally trust the reader/listener to understand that they must contextually infer as needed once they see/hear "whether"... but I am a minimalist.

So I would simply say:

"There is some confusion as to whether it is necessary for all of the board members to be present when the meeting is called to order and the agenda is read."

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In this case there are actually other options -- perhaps a supermajority is needed, or maybe half is enough, or some arbitrary number. Anyway, my question was a general one, the sentence I gave was just an example. Surely there are instances where the second option cannot be inferred from the first. –  Dave Sep 20 '11 at 4:19
    
Ah, but now you've got two cases - one second option, or a range of secondary options. And given the fact that the range potentially exists, as you have pointed out, it's better to leave further explication to subsequent sentences as needed or else risk getting messy. If it is just one explicit second option that you want to highlight, I'd have no qualms with throwing the additional "..., or ..." on the end. –  verbsintransit Sep 20 '11 at 4:36
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Dave: This is a writing problem, not a mechanical problem. The widely separated whether...or is correct, but it's not good writing. An easy solution is to reverse the two phrases represented by whether and or, i.e., put the short one first.

Also, remove the comma before or. Correlative pairs (e.g., either...or, both...and) are not separated by commas.

Notice: The correlative pair is whether...or. Whether establishes a choice between options, as in whether this...or that. Thus, no if is needed; in fact, it's redundant. Save if for establishing the conditions for an action, and you will increase both clarity and professional credibility.

Of course, the real problem with the sentence is the choice of subjects. There is always a crummy subject. It serves only as a placeholder and has no meaning itself. If you really wish to improve this sentence (notice if to establish a condition for the action to follow), then find the real subject, i.e., the rhetorical subject.

More about the rhetorical subject: http://preciseedit.wordpress.com/2010/03/12/the-real-subject-of-your-sentence/

Could we be the rhetorical subject, as in "We aren't sure whether...or..."?

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For the purpose of clarification/instruction, it is often helpful to eliminate extra phrasing in order to simplify studying the issue. Such phrases can be added back in after the study is complete

"There is some confusion as to whether all board members have to be present or not."

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