Usage : whether (or not) vs. if
Date: Wed, 12 Apr 95 18:17:51 PDT
From: Peter Langston <psl>
Subject: Usage : whether (or not) vs. if
From: The Straight Dope 12-2-94
Copyright 1994 Chicago Reader
Recently I posted the following question to the alt.fan.cecil-adams
newsgroup on the Internet:
"Yo, grammar mavens! What is the rule governing the use of `or not'
with `whether'? The following sentences both make sense to me as a native
speaker of English:
(1) I don't know whether it will rain on Monday.
(2) I will see you on Monday, whether or not it rains.
Are these sentences grammatically correct?"
RAJ replied: "You're correct; they're both acceptable and proper."
BPH replied: "You're incorrect. The former is not proper, and the
latter, while not improper, is verbose, even though it is common.
`Whether' denotes a differentiation between several choices, and should
not be used with a single antecedent. The proper word to use for the
subjunctive clause in the first sentence is `if,' as in, `I don't know if
it will rain on Monday.'"
To which FH replied: "On what planet-of-the-hyperactive-alien-
schoolmarms, Bub? Thus spake the American Heritage Third: `whether 1.
Used in indirect questions to introduce one alternative: We should find
out whether the museum is open.' A usage note under the definition of
`if' specifically discourages the use of `if' in such cases because it
often creates ambiguities."
BPH had concluded his post with the thought, "The worst part about
grammar flames is triple-checking to be sure you haven't made your petard
self-hoisting." To which FH replied: "Maybe you should've given it one
last check before you lit the fuse." Oh, my.
While I'm not exactly sorry I asked, I am not actually any clearer
on the concept, and decided I should submit this to the Omniscient One,
AKA Unca Cece. --Deborah, via the Internet
And smart you were to do so, Deb. I love grammar questions, because
they give everybody a chance to get passionate about a matter of no
consequence at all, without the use of firearms. They should try this
system in the Balkans.
Regarding the question at hand, your sample sentences are acceptable
and proper as stated. I would be predisposed to think this regardless,
number one because you show the proper attitude of awe and respect vis-a-vis
myself, an all too rare occurrence these days, and number two because one
of your defenders was Frank H., one of Cecil's buds from way back. While
Frank is not always right (nobody is, except me), anybody who can come up
with a phrase like `planet-of-the-hyperactive-alien-schoolmarms' you gotta
As you rightly sense, there are instances in which it is wrong to
append `or not' to `whether.' The test for determining such instances is
whether or not you can delete `or not' without affecting the sense of the
sentence. For example, in the preceding sentence, `or not' adds nothing to
the sense and is thus superfluous, if hard to resist in spoken usage. Not
so in your sentence #2 above. Regarding sentence #1, both Frank and the AH3
are correct in pointing out that though `if' and `whether' are more or less
synonymous, `if' can be ambiguous in some circumstances. The AH3 example is
Let her know if she is invited, which can be interpreted to mean Let her
know whether she is invited or Let her know in the event that she is
Cecil naturally speaks with pope-like infallibility in these matters
but since there are always doubters let me quote Theodore Bernstein (The
Careful Writer, 1965): "Usually the or not is a space waster.... When,
however, the intention is to give equal stress to the alternatives, the or
not is mandatory.... One way [besides Cecil's] to test whether the or not
is necessary is to substitute if for whether. If the change to if produces
a different meaning ... the or not must be supplied." Your sentence #2 once
again passes the test.
© 1995 Peter Langston