If the distinction between two words is clear, why is there confusion about such words’ use?
While editing, I often ask myself this question, as writers often seem uncertain about whether to use “if” or “whether” in sentences.
Admittedly, this mistake is somewhat understandable: The words’ usages are somewhat similar (despite the difference being significant), and under limited circumstances, they can even be used interchangeably. As a copy editor, however, I cannot allow this error to persist, so here’s a simple explanation:
Whether should be used in a situation in which two alternatives exist.
- I don’t know whether I prefer Nabokov or Faulkner. — This one’s pretty simple. There are clearly two choices: Nabokov and Faulkner.
- Whether he will learn to punctuate properly is uncertain. — This is a little more complicated but still easy to understand. There are again two options: that he will learn (explicit) and that he won’t learn (implicit). Confusion typically arises from this case, as “if” isn’t always wholly incorrect in such scenarios.
If should be used in sentences presenting a condition.
- If you write cohesively, people will understand you. — Note that there aren’t two possibilities here. If you don’t learn to write cohesively, people will not understand you. People will understand you under the condition that you write cohesively.
- I will fix grammatical errors if I catch them. — Under the condition that I find errors, I will rectify them.
If you follow these rules, you’ll never be in doubt about whether “if” or “whether” is correct.