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John

General English ‘If’ vs. ‘whether’ with full infinitives

‘Whether’ is like a casual acquaintance for many international speakers: you’ve seen it around but you don’t really know what it’s doing or what its job is. To get it right 100% of the time learn and stick to these rules. If you have a full infinitive verb (that means one that begins with ‘to’), then whether is your friend. ‘I don’t know if to get him’ will make your teachers cry, but ‘I don’t whether to get him’ will bring a smile to their lips! It’s the same for every verb you could think of; if it’s a full infinitive, never let me hear you putting ‘if’ before it! More than that, ‘whether’ is your choice for after prepositions, instead of ‘if’. This means you should definitely be saying: ‘I’m torn between whether I want to study French or try Italian’ and ‘we talked about whether going by train would be quicker.’ So that’s two clear instances where ‘whether’ can help you out. We also prioritise ‘whether’ when the clause it appears in is the subject or complement of the sentence: ‘whether you like the setup or not, is no concern of mine.’

General English: ‘If’ vs. ‘whether’ with ‘or’

Although traditional grammar has often said otherwise, these days all the big authorities and, indeed, hundreds of thousands of native speakers agree on rule 3: whether belongs with ‘or.’ Nine times out of ten you are looking at two possible options for your decision, so place an ‘or’ between them and use ‘whether’ to set yourself on the right track. So, then, you have ‘I don’t care whether we to the beach or not’ or perhaps the common expression used when people are confused about how to react to a situation that is half tragic and half comic ‘she didn’t know whether to laugh or cry about it.’ It’s likely you’ll hear native speakers using ‘whether’ in this way even if they aren’t in the habit of using it otherwise. Finally, it’s worth knowing that ‘whether’ does tend to sound more formal than ‘if’ in English. This makes it a great choice for written work, for anything related to the academic field and for any type of really formal situation. It also means that in informal relaxed conversation, you’re likely to hear a lot less of this word. When it comes to indirect questions, for example, you have the choice to use ‘if’ or ‘whether’, and in informal settings I would prioritise ‘if’.

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