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Swan's 'Practical English Grammar' says: "Yes/no questions are reported with if or whether... whether and if can both introduce indirect questions."

e.g:

She asked me if/whether she could sit next to me.

But consider the question itself as a polite request:

Do you mind if I sit next to you?

Would you mind if I sat next to you?

These are clearly two indirect questions with yes/no answers, but 'whether' sounds incorrect in both cases. (Is it?) e.g.:

Would you mind whether I sat next to you?

Can anybody explain grammatically what the procedure is here? It's not clear to me how it should differ from other polite indirect questions which use 'whether', e.g:

Could you tell me whether the train has left?

  • "She asked me whether she could sit next to me." sounds like a perfectly valid way, to my ear, to describe the two questions you say she might have asked. (A nicer phrasing might have been, "She asked to sit next to me.") All of the proposed phrasings involve a little interpretation of her intent, but the intent is clear enough that even in a journalistic context the interpretation would be fine. – Mike Graham Dec 27 '19 at 0:33
  • Yes, but my question is not about that, but about the following two sentences. – Chilli Dec 27 '19 at 0:34
  • You asked "...'whether' sounds incorrect in both cases. (Is it?)" -- The answer is "No, it's correct." – Mike Graham Dec 27 '19 at 0:36
  • So "Would you mind whether I sat next to you?" is correct? – Chilli Dec 27 '19 at 0:37
  • I misunderstood the context, I thought by "questions are reported" you meant how questions are later described. "Would you mind whether I sat next to you?" is indeed not a good way to ask, "May I sit next to you?" If you wanted to shoehorn whether in, you might choose, "I was wondering whether I could sit next to you." (this does not phrase a question, but is a common way of requesting permission) or "Could you tell me whether this seat is occupied?" (which is obviously pretty indirect). – Mike Graham Dec 27 '19 at 0:40
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Although both if and whether can elicit binary answers, if strongly references one option (the stated option) whereas whether references both.

The proposition "I sit next to you" has an implicit negation: "I don't sit next to you". The question "Do you mind?" with reference to this proposition could have 4 possibilities:

  1. I mind that you sit next to me.
  2. I mind that you don't sit next to me.
  3. I don't mind that you sit next to me.
  4. I don't mind that you don't sit next to me.

Asking "Do you mind if I sit next to you?" references only the proposition and not its negation. Hence a simple yes/no answer distinguishes possibilities 1 and 3 above.

Changing if to whether changes the question. A "no" now means that they don't care whether you sit next to them - i.e. they don't care if you sit next to them, or if you don't sit next to them (possibilities 3 and 4 above). A "yes" is more problematic because it picks up both 1 and 2 - leaving you with no way to satisfy them. This might be the source of discomfort with asking the question using whether instead of if.

The train example doesn't have this problem. Although the proposition "the train has left" also has the implicit negation "the train has not left", the question "Could you tell me" is more of a request than a true question.

If it were a true question, then "Yes" would mean "Yes, I can tell you" rather than "Yes, the train has left", and likewise with "No". In practice, people would tend to recognise the request to convey the train's state, and reply with something like "It's left" or "It's still here". That is, you only have two possibilities to consider, not the four that accompanied the earlier example.

In this case (with the train example), both "if" and "whether" produce similar answers because a negative answer to an if question is equivalent to a positive answer to its negation. However, compared to a whether question, the if question still emphasises the asker's interest in the positive case.

More generally, you can think about whether questions as if they have an implicit "or not" tacked on, whereas if questions don't.

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