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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. Commented Jan 21, 2011 at 14:25
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    @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
    Commented Jan 21, 2011 at 14:45
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    @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
    Commented Jan 21, 2011 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. Commented Mar 7, 2011 at 12:44
  • I prefer to use whether, if I have a choice, and then I will add or not
    – mplungjan
    Commented Mar 7, 2011 at 13:25

5 Answers 5

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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. Commented Feb 23, 2015 at 19:10
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    @JohnLawler Yeah, but they can be alternative questions too (sometimes with more than two alternatives - for example: ... whether you win, lose or draw) Commented Jul 2, 2017 at 10:30
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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
    Commented Jun 4, 2011 at 17:07
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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.

THUS:

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) Commented Oct 1, 2011 at 3:00
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    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. Commented Oct 3, 2011 at 22:01
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If is suggesting a condition, like "if it would be OK for you the RB to run with the ball behind the Tight End"

"Whether" is for an alternative with only 2 exclusive options not 3. "Whether the QB will throw or give the ball, you shall sack him down !" The use of "if" would be stupid...

But we also have "whatever the QB does, you sack him : ie. even before he moves or tries to pass..." This has 3 options for the QB you target anyway. We may also understand "Whether the Guard wants to stop you, goes backward or to the side, you rush & blow him". Here : 3 options which are in fact 2 : The Guard runs toward you or not, you are instructed to get him, so we can use "whether" to charge you to deliver to the guy the kind of clear message we want.

"IF" you really have more than 2 options, try to do it without "whether". "Whether the field will be dry, wet or snowy we shall play our game" sounds very bad. So put it in an other way... "If" could work, for a coach at least !

But we also have the mix Whether/If : "Whether/If I can jump over the Center, I'll run to the End zone". "Whether" because there are 2 scenari (yes or not) ; "If" because there is a condition to run.

Am I clear ? So let's go back on the line boys, we have the grammar to play :)

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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
    Commented Jan 21, 2011 at 14:13
  • Edited to that effect.
    – user3444
    Commented Jan 21, 2011 at 14:17
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    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? Commented Jan 21, 2011 at 14:18
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    @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
    Commented Jan 21, 2011 at 14:21
  • @ElendilTheTall: maybe you should make your answer more comprehensive to include stuff like that
    – Claudiu
    Commented Jan 21, 2011 at 14:44

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