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Editing Tip: 'Whether' vs. 'If'

Summary

Many writers believe that the words ‘whether’ and ‘if’ are interchangeable. However, each of these words has specific – and often separate – functions. Generally, ‘whether’ is used more frequently in academic writing.

Many writers believe that the words ‘whether’ and ‘if’ are interchangeable. However, each of these words has specific – and often separate – functions.

The conjunctionwhether’ is arguably used more often than the conjunction ‘if’ in academic writing. Here are some scenarios in which ‘whether’ (and not ‘if’) should be used, with examples.

1. After a preposition

  • Have you settled the question of whether you will go back to teaching?

2. When a question-word clause is the subject or complement of the sentence

  • As a subject: Whether the project will receive funding is yet to be determined.

  • As a complement: The question is whether the film is even worth seeing.

3. Before an infinitive

  • She has to decide whether to attend graduate school right after she graduates from college.

4. In a two-part phrase or question with the word ‘or’ (i.e., when two alternatives are posed: x or y)

  • Whether the court case is won or lost, we will all be glad when it is over.

5. To add or enhance a formal written tone

  • The panel members discussed whether they should accept an extension on the professor’s grant proposal. (Using the word ‘if’ in place of ‘whether’ in this example would also be grammatically correct, but it would sound less formal.)

Using ‘if’

The word ‘if’ can be used interchangeably with ‘whether’ to introduce indirect questions, such as in the following examples:

  • I do not know whether (if) I can attend your party.
  • I do not know if (whether) the mail has arrived.

We hope that these examples have helped to distinguish when it is best to use the word ‘whether’ rather than ‘if’ in your academic writing! Please email us with any comments or questions!

Tags Writing a manuscript Editing tips Word choice Formal tone

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