The Difference Between Whether, Whether or Not, and If

A blog subscriber wrote to ask about whether, wondering if there is a difference between whether and whether or not.

What a coincidence that I had looked this up not long ago! As I often say, if you have a question about grammar, there probably are others who have the same question.

The answer to this query is not straightforward or absolute. The broader question is when should you use whether, when should you use if, and should you ever use whether or not? Here are explanations and examples.

Whether and If

When using informal language, if and whether can be interchangeable:

I wonder if Ben is going to the baseball game.
I wonder whether Ben is going to the baseball game.
(Both sentences question Ben’s plans to go — or to not go — to the baseball game.)


When you’re expressing a choice between two alternatives, use whether:

I don’t know whether Ben is going to the baseball game or the basketball game.
(Ben will decide to go to one game or the other.)


When you substitute if for whether in the same phrasing, you create a statement with a different implication:

I don’t know if Ben is going to the basketball game or the baseball game.
(Ben could decide to go to neither.)


Consider how you would use vocal emphasis if you were speaking each of the last two options:

I don’t know whether Ben is going to the baseball game or the basketball game.
I don’t know if Ben is going to the basketball game or the baseball game.


Whether or not

Now consider these examples that show how or not affects meaning:

Let Ben know if you would like to go to the baseball game.
(This statement requests that you contact Ben only if you choose to go to the game.)

Let Ben know whether or not you would like to go to the baseball game.
(This statement requests that you contact Ben in either case.)

When it comes to all things grammatical, what might appear to be a simple question can turn out to be not so simple after all.

Let me take this opportunity to remind you of my definition of grammar:

Grammar encompasses the words you choose, how you string them together, and how you punctuate them so they make sense.

Your words matter. Choose them with care. And consider sharing this with fellow grammarians!

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Kathy Watson

Kathy Watson has a love/hate relationship with grammar; she loves words and the punctuation that helps them make sense, yet she hates those pesky rules. A self-proclaimed ruthless editor, she prefers standard usage guidelines of The Associated Press Stylebook. Her easy-to-use Grammar for People Who Hate Rules helps people write and speak with authority and confidence. She encourages and welcomes questions and comments. (Email)

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