Do you hear people use the word “if” a lot in English?
Do you sometimes hear the word “whether” used instead?
If you find yourself feeling unsure of which one is correct to use in a conversation, you’re not alone.
This is one of those aspects of English where even natives may struggle sometimes, and so it’s okay to feel unsure or to need some practice.
Today we’re going to look at when you may use “if” or “whether”, which one can work in certain situations, and how this is an area where you may just need more practice to nail down the concept.
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We have an interesting word choice/grammar question today!
I hope you’re doing well! I have a question that I am hoping you can help to answer for me. I was wondering if (whether) there is a difference between “if“ and “whether?” Can they be mixed or are there any rules as to how to use them? I guess “if” has to be used in conditional sentences. But I‘m confused how to use those words in another context.
For example: “My boss has asked me today if I can work on Friday.” Or “My boss has asked me today whether I can work on Friday.” Are both of these correct? I couldn’t find an episode about this online, so I am hoping you can help me to answer it.
Thanks in advance for your help!
Dominik from Germany
A Little Background
This is a great question, and it’s an excellent focus on a specific aspect of English.
We checked out Grammar Girl for some ideas—so you’ll want to check out these episodes with her for some helpful background.
The Origins of Colors with Mignon Fogarty From Grammar Girl /
Here’s the link so you can get some additional helpful examples in this area. https://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/if-versus-whether
Basically, there is a general rule, but there are also times where either one is good.
This is kind of one of those situations where native speakers may not know the answer to this question, but we will guide you through it, as inspired by grammar girl!
It’s important to remember that point here too—sometimes even natives don’t know the answer to such questions so it’s perfectly okay if you don’t.
As you are learning English and advancing in it, you will find that some specific areas can be a bit more complicated.
This is where you need to listen to others speaking, look for helpful examples, and then practice so that you get the hang of it.
So in general do you think you say “if” or “whether” more?
You may tend to find that using if is more common and may be a better fit for certain situations.
Breaking This Down To Make It Easier
So how can you tell the difference?
How do you know when to use “if” and when would you find that “whether” is a better fit?
It starts with looking at the following condition when you find yourself in doubt.
- If: This is used for conditionals, just as our listener said above.
- Whether: This can be used when there is more than one possibility. Let’s look at a quick example to help illustrate this in a way that makes it easier to understand.
“I don’t know whether I want cookies or ice cream.”
“I want either cookies or ice cream, but I don’t know which!”
“I don’t know IF I want cookies or ice cream”: This means I may not even want them at all, or it could mean one or the other, but it is less clear and a bit more vague.
Now, with that second example, you may look at that and think that sometimes native speakers would still use if with the two options.
This may be the natural tendency, because using “if” there works well.
You may even use “if” informally, but it is unclear here because the meaning can be a bit different.
If you want to be sure that you are being very clear, then go with “whether” for these situations.
Let’s look at this with the conditional so that it’s very clear how it can work.
“Let me know if you want to meet later.”
This is definitely a conditional and so you would use if because it ties it together and gives you this option.
“Let me know whether or not you want to meet later.”
This is not conditional, because you want to know no matter whatever you decide.
Either Let’s look at it in a case of either or, as this can be a great way to take in some examples.
“I didn’t know if you would call later.” Vs. “I didn’t know whether you would call later.”
With these, they are both ok, but it could or could not happen.
However, with this one, it seems that “if” is a better fit.
Take the listener’s example here for a starting point– “My boss has asked me today if I can work on Friday.” Vs. “My boss has asked me today whether I can work on Friday.”
This is about only one possibility, or rather it is about if it is possible at all.
You may say “whether or not”, and it can work here.
More than likely though you would use if as it just feels more natural.
This is a situation where you have to practice using both options, so that you can see which sounds more natural.
You may make some mistakes, but that’s okay as you are learning.
This is something that even natives may struggle with sometimes, and you will get more used to it and pick the right one often based on sound alone.
Summarizing This Sometimes Tricky Concept
So how do you approach this?
We’ve broken it down and looked it in several different ways, but how do you know which one to select?
Again, sometimes you have to sound it out, but there are a couple of rules of thumb so to speak which may help you here.
The main idea is to think through the following concepts in order to make the best word choice for the situation at hand.
- If may tend to be the most common: When in doubt you may find that “if” works well. Though both have their place and it may depend on the specific circumstances, you may find that using if happens more readily. It’s a common word and it can work in so many different situations, and so you may find that if is used more often. If you’re not sure sound it out, but many times it will be a perfect fit.
- Consider if it is a conditional: You have seen by now how it works when you are dealing with a conditional. Therefore take a moment to evaluate if it is a conditional, and now you see which option to go with. Sometimes whether works just perfectly, though there may be instances where you are tying together two ideas, and therefore if is a natural fit.
- Listen for what people say in conversations, because the rules aren’t always followed: This may be your biggest help here, because listening to others can help you tremendously. You may find that even natives don’t follow the rules, but you can learn more from listening to their conversations than anything. Hear what people use, what sounds natural, and what flows in conversations. This can help you to see what is natural and frequently used, but it may also ensure that you can practice on your own based on other people’s conversations.
- How many options are there? This can be a helpful thing to evaluate because the number of options can make a difference. In a situation where there are multiple options then you may find that whether works best as you can choose accordingly. If you can pick from just two different options, then if may be a better fit. The best rule though is to listen, sound it out, and then go with what sounds natural.
There are exceptions to every rule, and remember that this is an area where even natives aren’t sure and don’t follow the rules.
If you can keep these things in mind, then you can select the very best option in each situation.
A little practice goes a long way, so don’t worry if you aren’t sure or if you make mistakes as this is a learning concept even for natives.
Roleplay To Help
In this roleplay, Lindsay and Michelle are at the store.
Lindsay: “Okay I’m going to check and see whether or not they have apples. “ (could or couldnt have apples)
Michelle: “Good idea. If you find them, let me know.”
Lindsay: “I will. I don’t know whether I want chicken or beef for dinner tonight.”
Michelle: “Hmm. I don’t know if I want either! I was thinking a veggie meal.”
Lindsay: “Oh okay that sounds good. I’m going to see if there are good veggies in the next aisle.”
Michelle: “Great thanks!”
Remember our tips because they can be very helpful when you’re not sure of which to use.
Thanks to Grammar Girl who guides us through these very specific topics, and gives us some helpful background to utilize.
Listen to how you hear each one used and try it out for yourself, because after all practice makes perfect.
Don’t get too bogged down or stressed out, just remember the basic rules and know that the more that you practice these the better you will get!
If you have any questions, please leave them below in the comments section.
We’ll get back to you as soon as we can.