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In the following circumstances, can 'whether' be used for more than two options:

Whether recyclable, made from natural fibre or even attached to a tree-planting scheme for each mattress sold — we have the perfect sustainable mattress for you.

I'm not interested in how to improve the structure of this sentence, I just want to know if the word 'whether' in this context can be used with more than two options.

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    What did you look up? Cambridge has "used to introduce two or more possibilities" which seems fairly conclusive, although their examples don't illustrate that. Please show your research.
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Sep 14, 2022 at 9:41
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    A lot of places like Cambridge and Collins say more than two but only give examples featuring two choices. Example, 'Whether it turns out to be a good idea or a bad idea, we'll find out.' Whether can be thought of in some circumstances as short for whether or not. That seems to suggest only two options. Just looking for some clarity.
    – AJB
    Commented Sep 14, 2022 at 9:51
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    Merriam-Webster's examples include CS Lewis: "If you tell me that something is a pleasure, I do not know whether it is more like revenge, or buttered toast, or success, or adoration, or relief from danger, or a good scratch."
    – Stuart F
    Commented Sep 14, 2022 at 10:41
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    I would suggest that that doesn't answer this question. The suggested duplicate is about the binary-choice use of whether (which is implied by or not) not a multiple-choice of whether.
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Sep 14, 2022 at 11:44
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    Whether you're interested in how to improve the sentence, how to challenge grammar lovers, or how to divide the undivided middle, not caring about structure and controlling replies is waving red at a bullfight. Commented Sep 14, 2022 at 13:19

3 Answers 3

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Your sentence is fine. Whether can introduce an enumeration. Note that the binary use of whether is limited to the cases where the two alternatives are exhaustive (that is, they are the only two possible alternatives), sometimes even mutually exclusive. Guinlist explains

It is notable that the two possibilities combined by whether… or… are mutually exclusive opposites.

  • Whether they WON or LOST, the children received a prize.

There is no other possibility than winning and losing.

However, when the alternatives are not exhaustive, they can constitute an enumeration headed by whether like in this structure: Whether + subject + verb followed by object or complement. Here is a very clear example:

Whether it [emotional abuse] is done by constant berating and belittling, by intimidation, or under the guise of “guidance,” “teaching,” or “advice,” the results are similar. (counselingcenter.uk)

Here the verb after whether is passive and the enumeration that follows is the agent complement of the verb.

In Thien's China, the thing that should have arrived is always still to come, whether it involves a missing person, a secret message or a better future. (The Guardian - Books)

Here the verb after whether is active, and the enumeration constitutes the direct object of the verb.

What qualifications were necessary in those who are to be created new lords: whether the humour of the prince, a sum of money to a court lady, or a design of strengthening a party opposite to the public interest, ever happened to be the motive in those advancements? (Gulliver's Travels, Jonathan Swift)

In such cases, the enumeration can include many possibilities. There is no rule that limits it to two. Though they give binary examples, dictionaries like M-W, Macmillan and OxfordL, all speak of two or more alternatives.


CAGEL does not explain this about whether, but on p. 990 you'll find this example:

The United Nations may not interfere in the political affairs of any nation, whether to unify it, federalise it, or balkanise it.

There is another one on p. 994:

Our thanks are due to all our staff, whether they be in the offices, the warehouses, or branches, for their help during this difficult time.

On p. 1001, it interprets this example:

  • It meets with continuing hostility from those who see themselves as fostering and guarding serious art, [ whether it be in the theatre, in fiction, or on television].

Here we have a closed interrogative expressing an alternative question: the meaning is approximately "irrespective of the answer to the question 'Is it in the theatre, in fiction, or on television?'':

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The etymology from Etymonline says it comes from

Old English hwæðer, hweðer "which of two, whether,"

Some grammarians (see this video) say that whether can only apply to two alternatives in Modern English.

However, Old English and Middle English had a number of words which distinguished between one, two, and many; Modern English is generally much looser about these things. For one example, Shakespeare wrote ca. 1600, and while he generally used whether for just two things, here are examples where he uses whether for three and four things:

Now, whether he kill Cassio,
Or Cassio him, or each do kill the other,

Tell me, you heavens, in which part of his body
Shall I destroy him? whether there, or there, or there?

Whether in sea or fire, in earth or air,
Th' extravagant and erring spirit hies
To his confine; and of the truth herein
This present object made probation.

For another example, neither is a different one of these words that originally was only used for two things. And while some grammarians say you should still only use it in this way, consider the motto of the U.S. Post Office:

Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.

In conclusion, I would only worry about using whether for a choice of two alternatives when you're writing for an English instructor who is very strict about grammar.

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    Shakespeare's use of "Whether in sea or fire, in earth or air" still remains twofold IMO. He uses 2 pairs, but dropped "whether" before "in earth": Whether in sea or fire, [whether] in earth or air. I think the case for "whether... or" being a double conjunction is pretty strong...
    – fev
    Commented Sep 14, 2022 at 12:49
  • @fev: I added another example from Shakespeare, which is possibly better. Commented Sep 14, 2022 at 12:53
  • Yes, now you have a case... Basically, it is possible but not common.
    – fev
    Commented Sep 14, 2022 at 12:55
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    +1 Whether is the wh-word for embedded yes/no questions (other questions already have a wh-word at the beginning). So there's a question there, and the dual nature of most yes/no questions lends itself to or not tags, substitution with if, and other negative, conditional, interrogative traits. But not all questions are razor-edge yes/no. Do you like him? is a question, and whether you like him is not an obviously dualistic clause. It's the sort of thing that often leads to novels. Or at least to more than two possibilities. Commented Sep 14, 2022 at 14:04
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While the etymology has a reference to "two" in it, today's use clearly is not bound to a specific number of alternatives. In fact, it simply indicates a potential: "We don't know whether [something is the case]."

Of course you can always add "... or not", making it a binary choice; but that's not the gist of the statement. Indeed a third choice could often be added to binary choices, even if they seem exhaustive: "Whether it made it better or worse [or didn't do anything] is to be seen."

The entry in Merriam-Webster's provides us with three example sentences which use whether for one, two or many possibilities, respectively. (As an aside, a similar use can be seen for alternative which originally refers to two states taking turns, as in ebb and flow. But there are often more than two alternatives.)

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