I'm a native German speaker, so forgive me if I use wrong words or wrong syntax.

In a major news outlet today I read this headline:

Time to decide if we want UN focused & effective or on the sidelines

I wonder whether this should be:

Time to decide whether we want UN focused & effective or on the sidelines

I am often confused where if or whether is appropriate to use.

  • And for the above phrase? – PeterSalz Feb 23 '15 at 18:36
  • @user111530, your examples seem exactly the same in meaning and acceptability, to me. – Greg Lee Feb 23 '15 at 18:48
  • 2
    Either works in this case. – ScotM Feb 23 '15 at 18:49
  • The answer by Neil Coffey in that possible duplicate noted above is a very good summary. – John Lawler Feb 23 '15 at 19:12

Although both work, in my mind, whether expresses a choice between two (or more) alternatives, while if...or puts a bit more emphasis/preference on the first alternative. In this case, the speaker seems to favor a "focused & effective" UN.


Whenever two alternatives are presented or there is an implicit binary choice, I prefer 'whether' to 'if'. Grammar Girl agrees:

Although in informal writing and speech the two words are often used interchangeably, in formal writing, such as in technical writing at work, it's a good idea to make a distinction between them because the meaning can sometimes be different depending on which word you use. The formal rule is to use if when you have a conditional sentence and whether when you are showing that two alternatives are possible.

  • Would you mind quoting, in your answer, the relevant parts of that Grammar Girl post? – Dan Bron Feb 24 '15 at 15:03

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