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Are if and whether equivalent in sentences like the ones below?

How to determine if my saddle is too high?
How to determine whether my saddle is too high?

We should check if everything is okay now.
We should check whether everything is okay now.

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In those contexts, the words if, whether and that are equivalent. The word can also be omitted without altering the meaning of the sentence. In other contexts this isn't so. I'd like to see a more general answer. –  RedGrittyBrick Jan 21 '11 at 14:25
@RedGrittyBrick: "that" is not quite equivalent to the other two in these contexts - saying "We should check that everything is OK" implies that we believe that it is, but want to make certain, whereas using if/whether in this case implies we don't have a strong belief either way. –  psmears Jan 21 '11 at 14:45
@psmears: Indeed, and in the saddle case the meaning is certainly different: "check that the saddle is too high" would mean "make sure that the saddle actually is too high", implying that if it is not, we will take some corrective action. What makes the difference, I think is that "too high" is implicitly an undesirable outcome, and in that case you cannot replace "whether" by "that" (or omit it). –  Colin Fine Jan 21 '11 at 14:56
I write those things quite a lot too; I prefer the second because the first doesn't sound quite right to me. I'd be interested in hearing an authoritative answer. –  Brian Hooper Mar 7 '11 at 12:44
I prefer to use whether, if I have a choice, and then I will add or not –  mplungjan Mar 7 '11 at 13:25

4 Answers 4

up vote 20 down vote accepted

In general, if you're turning a question into a noun, whether tends to be preferred in formal use. So this includes your example plus, e.g.:

The discussion was about [whether climate change was an important issue].

The issue is [whether we need to act now].

In informal usage, if is also possible in these cases.

It's important to understand that 'whether' and 'if' are not always interchangeable. The word whether only has the meaning of "if ... or not" (though you can still use the formula whether ... or not for emphasis), so for example you can't use whether in this case:

If/*whether you decide to come, give me a call.

Another key difference is that whether can introduce an infinitive, whereas if can't (they're different parts of speech):

They couldn't decide whether/*if to come.

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Yeah. Whether is simply the interrogative wh-word for embedding a Yes/No question. Consequently it's always a subordinator. Since it's a Yes/No question, it's got only two alternatives. Also, clauses started with whether still function like embedded questions (or free relatives), not subordinating conjunctions like if. –  John Lawler Feb 23 at 19:10

Whether is used to emphasis that one has two alternatives to pick from. Merriam-Webster gives two definitions:

1. archaic : which one of the two 
2. archaic : whichever one of the two

In the saddle example, there are three alternative results: too high, too low or just perfect. It doesn't make much sense to check the saddle for being too high and not caring about too low.

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They're calling 'whether' archaic?! Any respect I might have had for M-W just evaporated. edit: never mind; I see it's only the pronoun usage they call archaic. –  Jez Jun 4 '11 at 17:07

Short answer is, yes, they are equivalent, simply because 'if' and 'whether' essentially mean the same thing in this regard. Both are used to introduce indirect questions.

To expand further, whether is also used to state a certainty:

'I'm marrying Zooey Deschanel whether or not my girlfriend likes it!'

for example.

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I'm wondering if/whether your long answer would explain why. –  Ivo Rossi Jan 21 '11 at 14:13
Edited to that effect. –  user3444 Jan 21 '11 at 14:17
But only when used in that way. Compare "If I die, Mary will be rich" with "Whether I die, Mary will be rich". Presumably there is some description of, or name for, these patterns of usage that explains when "whether" is equivalent to "if" and when not? –  RedGrittyBrick Jan 21 '11 at 14:18
Thanks for the edit too @ElendilTheTall –  Ivo Rossi Jan 21 '11 at 14:19
@RedGrittyBrick: Whether is only used to introduce an indirect question or to state a certainty: your example isn't an example of the former. 'If' in that context means 'in the event that'. You could say 'Whether I die or not, Mary will be rich.', which is an example of the latter. –  user3444 Jan 21 '11 at 14:21

Let's make it simple and clear:

Whether - use this word for indicating 2 options

If - use this word to establish a condition for an action.

Informally, "if" is sometimes used when "whether" is the better word, and in many cases this doesn't lead to confusion. This means that, informally, "if" is used in more than one way. However, "whether" only has one meaning, so using "whether" when indicating options is preferred.


1: How to determine whether my saddle is too high. (as in whether the saddle is too high or not--two options)

2: We should check whether everything is okay now. (as in whether everything is okay or not--two options)

Note: In both examples, the 2nd part of the expression "whether...or not" is implied. This is quite common and quite acceptable when doing so doesn't reduce clarity. This leads us to the next point.

You can correctly say "Whether you decide to come or not, give me a call." The shortened form, with the implied part 2, is "Whether you decide to come, give me a call." (I wouldn't write this because it reduces clarity. I would use the complete expression.)

One last comment: "Whether" doesn't need to be followed by a stated or implied "or not." The 2nd option could be any thing, as in "I don't know whether to buy cake or pickles."

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How to indicate three options? (Cake, pickles or coco nuts) –  Stéphane Gimenez Oct 1 '11 at 3:00
Ex: I can't decide whether to eat cake, pickles, or coconuts. Maybe I'll eat all three! "Whether" works with three, as well. the point is this: use "whether" to indicate options. –  David Bowman Oct 3 '11 at 22:01
Thanks. So, it's not similar to either. –  Stéphane Gimenez Oct 3 '11 at 22:26

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