11

Is using "whether ... than ..." in the following grammatically correct? "This applies whether you have a closer connection to a foreign country than the United States during 2018."

The phrase comes from the IRS publication 519 (2018), Chapter 1, Section "Dual-Status Aliens", Subsection "Last Year of Residency", Paragraph "Residency during the next year", with my bold.

Residency during the next year. If you are a U.S. resident during any part of 2019 and you are a resident during any part of 2018, you will be treated as a resident through the end of 2018. This applies whether you have a closer connection to a foreign country than the United States during 2018, and whether you are a resident under the substantial presence test or green card test.

(I should add that I am obviously not looking for legal advice: in any case this paragraph does not apply to me.)

  • This applies if it's true that you have a closer connection... – Centaurus Mar 31 at 22:10
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    Phrasing it with regardless would definitely be clearer. I do agree that it is rather strange. One does understand nevertheless. – Ev. Kounis Apr 1 at 12:30
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    This isn't whether ... than, it is actually closer ... than. – Rich Apr 1 at 20:33
19

The phrase is saying "whether you have a closer connection to a foreign country than you do to the United States". I see no cohesion between whether and than here.

  • 11
    Doesn't “whether” require a disjunction? I would have expected the sentence to be “This applies whether or not you have … during 2018” or “This applies whether you have … during 2018 or not”. – Gilles Apr 1 at 11:21
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    @Gilles - I agree. The or not is implied here and (IMO) is usually redundant. Whether here already suggests a binary choice. – Jim Mack Apr 1 at 12:39
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    @JimMack: I’d disagree; it seems at best borderline grammatical to me. Both “I’m leaving, whether you’re ready or not” and “I’m leaving, regardless of whether you’re ready” are certainly fine, but “I’m leaving soon, whether you’re ready” really doesn’t seem grammatical to me. If someone wrote that, it’d be clear from context what they meant, but I don’t think a native speaker would typically say or write it (except due to error, or as an unusual regionalism). In OP’s example, the omission isn’t so glaring because of the length, but as soon as I stop to look back, it feels wrong. – PLL Apr 1 at 16:19
  • @PLL - 'Usually' is probably too strong. I'll switch that to 'often'. Yes there are uses where or not must be explicit, but to insist on it when the meaning is clear without it is (again, IMO) just a waste of words: redundant. – Jim Mack Apr 2 at 13:27
  • @JimMack: If I say “I’m going America next week”, then the meaning is perfectly clear, but still it’s ungrammatical, and needs to be “…to America…” (at least in standard English; in some dialects, omitting the to is OK). Just because an omitted word can be inferred from context doesn’t mean the omission is grammatically acceptable. Does “I’m leaving soon, whether you’re ready” really seem grammatical to you? – PLL Apr 2 at 13:55
11

It's not strange. It's correct. Let's make it easier to digest by putting the subordinate clause first:

"Whether (or not) you have a closer connection to a foreign country than the United States during 2018, this applies to you."

I added "or not" in parentheses because it is meant but is left implied, which is often the case in English and is the case in this sentence. Maybe this is what's throwing you off, like by you mistakenly thinking the "than" is providing the "or" alternative for "whether" that's been omitted, "than" and "or" both being conjunctions.

Here's a simplified version of the sentence:

"Whether or not you have a closer friend than Uncle Sam, this applies."

To be clear, the above sentence doesn't mean the same thing as your sentence. It is merely a similar sentence that doesn't use so many words so it becomes clearer what the structure is and what's being said.

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    I'd argue that the omission of "or not" makes it incorrect. – nick012000 Apr 2 at 5:59
8

This applies whether you have a closer connection to a foreign country than [to] the United States during 2018, and whether you are a resident under the substantial presence test or green card test.

Unlike the other answerers so far, I would call this sentence ungrammatical. The word "whether" generally requires an alternative, such as "or not." The second half of the example sentence does provide such an alternative for its "whether," so my only objection to that half is the faulty parallelism. IMO it should have been written grammatically as

... and whether you are a resident under the substantial presence test or under the green card test.

(That is, maybe you're a resident under the substantial presence test, or maybe under the green card test; but it doesn't matter; the rule applies no matter which is the case.)


However, the first half of the example sentence has a "whether" without an "or not." Therefore it's just as ungrammatical as if you wrote a "both" without an "and":

This applies *both if you have a closer connection to a foreign country than to the United States during 2018.

Two grammatical possibilities for this sentence would be:

This applies whether you have a closer connection to a foreign country than to the United States during 2018 or not.

This applies whether or not you have a closer connection to a foreign country than to the United States during 2018.


Since you saw this in an official government publication, I'm sure they meant "whether or not," and it was a simple typo. However, if you had seen this misuse of the word "whether" in a news article online, there would be another highly probable explanation. Many third-party news aggregators recycle content scraped from other sites after running it through a "thesaurus app" to disguise the plagiarism. (For example, see how many news aggregators refer to Macaulay Culkin's role in House Alone.) So, if I saw the word "whether" used like this in an online news story, I would just assume that it had been spewed out by a thesaurus match on the word if.

If and whether are generally synonymous:

She asked if it was raining out.

She asked whether it was raining out.

In this particular sentence, though, the substitution takes us from grammatical (with one meaning) to ungrammatical (where the most natural "fix" has the completely opposite meaning).

This applies [only] if you have a closer connection to a foreign country than to the United States. [It applies in only one case.]

This applies *whether [or not] you have a closer connection to a foreign country than to the United States. [It applies in both cases.]

  • I mostly agree with this answer. However, there are certainly cases where "or not" can be implicit when using "whether", for instance in the sentence "I'm wondering whether that was a cat." If you could elaborate on why omitting "or not" is ungrammatical in this case, that would clarify things. – Bruno Le Floch Apr 3 at 6:01
  • I agree that "I'm wondering whether that was a cat" is grammatical, but notice that that's a case where "whether" is synonymous with "if": "I'm wondering if that was a cat." I haven't yet thought of any exceptions to that correlation. – Quuxplusone Apr 3 at 6:16
7

In the sentence (which is quite ordinary, not strange)

whether

is used as a function word to indicate an indirect question involving stated or implied alternatives (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/whether).

Than

is not connected with 'whether' but with the comparative form closer .

Here's an example from Reverso.context.net:

''Paragraph (1) applies whether the requirement referred to therein is in the form of an obligation or whether the law simply provides consequences for the absence of a signature.''

1

The sentence in question is perfectly grammatical, but as pointed out in Hot Licks' comment, it is poorly constructed -- almost designed to confuse. It follows the following pattern:

X is applicable whether a comparison is true (you have a closer connection to a foreign country than the United States during 2018).

This said, there's no relation between whether and than.

  • 1
    The sentence is poorly constructed -- almost designed to confuse. But, yes, it's still "perfectly grammatical". – Hot Licks Mar 31 at 23:15
  • Indeed, I updated my answer, @HotLicks. – Lucian Sava Apr 1 at 10:29
-1

It's ungrammatical, because "other" has been mistakenly omitted. It should have been "... a closer connection to a foreign country other than the United States". The "whether" has nothing to do with it.

It might not be ungrammatical in a dialect of English other than mine (contemporary Midwestern American), but without the "other", it just doesn't work for me, at all.

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    Another possibility is *whether you have a closer connection to a foreign country than to the United States." – Peter Shor Apr 1 at 0:06
  • @PeterShor, Yes, I agree. – Greg Lee Apr 1 at 0:11
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    I think Peter's reading is more likely. Otherwise, there's no context to make sense of "closer" being comparative. – aschepler Apr 1 at 1:34
-1

The only strange thing is the use of "and" to join the two "whether" clauses, instead of "or".

There is no grammatical connection between "whether" and "than". The overall structure of the sentence is

This applies whether [some condition is true] and whether [some other condition is true].

IMO it would be more logical to write

This applies whether [some condition is true] or whether [some other condition is true].

The word "whether" is repeated because the first condition is long and contains several clauses. If the second "whether" was omitted, it is not clear what the "and" refers back to. Compare the original sentence with "... the United States during 2018 and 2019" or "... The United States during 2018 and Europe during 2017" for example.

The first condition is "you have a closer connection to a foreign country than [to] the United States during 2018." The word "than" is linked to "closer," not to "whether".

  • 1
    "whether [condition] or [condition]" applies when the two conditions are mutually exclusive, e.g. "Since apartheid was abolished you can travel on any bus whether you are black or white". "whether [condition 1] and [condition 2]" applies when the two conditions are separate and important, e.g. for a white-male only club "your ability to join depends on whether you are male and whether you are white". – AndyT Apr 1 at 14:47

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