Saturday, March 5, 2011

The question of whether (or not) to use whether (or not)

It can sometimes be confusing when it's better to use whether or when we can use if. Random Idea English takes a look with some exercises.

Whether - introductory exercises

Ex. 1 - Use your instinct. Enter whether where you think it's the only possibility in a formal style, or if where you think there is a choice. Then check.

whether   ·   if   ·   Whether   ·   If
1.I don't care I never see him again.
2.We asked about we could travel at the weekend.
3.I really didn't know to laugh or cry.
4. Vera is coming or not, I don't know.
5.She asked we were going to the pub.
6.It doesn't matter you wear a blue tie or a green one.
7.We have to consider this is such a good idea.
8.What we need to think about is this expenditure is necessary.
9. we go or not depends on the weather.
10.There's the question as to he actually did it.
11.He wondered it would rain.
12.We're leaving now, you're ready or not.

Ex. 2 - (See instructions below) - We prefer to use whether:

1.When something is true whichever of two alternatives is chosen.
2.When something will happen whether something else happens or not.
3.After the verbs advise, consider, discuss.
4.After prepositions.
5.Before a to infinitive.
6.When an indirect question is fronted (see note below on fronting).
7.When whether is part of a subject clause.
8.When whether is part of a complement (object) clause.
9.With a noun + as to.

Look at the sentences where whether was the only possibility. Match the number of the sentences with the rules. You might want to go full-screen (F11) for this exercise.

Note - Fronting

This involves changing the normal word order to shift the emphasis.
  • Normal word order
    I'm wondering whether I really want to go to this conference.
  • Fronted word order
    Whether I really want to go to this conference, that's what I'm wondering.

Whether - uses

1. It doesn't matter, regardless, whatever

We use a whether ... or ... construction when there are two possibilities, but the result will be the same regardless of which possibility is true or happens. In other words it doesn't matter which possibility is true or happens, the result will be the same.

a. With two alternative scenarios

  • Whether we travel today or tomorrow, we'll still have to reserve seats.
  • You'll have to change at some point, whether you go by bus or by tram.
  • It doesn't matter whether you wear your dark suit or the light one, as long as you wear a suit.

b. When the alternative is a simple negative we have a choice of structures.

  • I'm going to their party, whether or not you come.
  • I'm going to their party, whether you come or not.
  • I'm going to their party, whether you come or whether you don't.

2. whether or if?

a. In indirect questions

We can generally use if or whether in yes / no indirect questions. Whether is usually considered more formal.
  • I'm not sure whether / if he's coming.
  • I asked whether / if he could help us.
But whether is preferred to if:
  1. after certain verbs
    • We discussed whether (or not) to buy more shares.
    • Could you advise me whether to accept this offer (or not).
    • We need to consider whether this will affect us immediately or later.
  2. in a formal style in two part questions with or
    • Let me know whether you can come or not.
    • The committee have to yet decide whether to appoint Robbins or Davis to the position.
  3. when an indirect question is fronted
    • Whether he'll come (or not) is anyone's guess.
    • Whether the meeting will be open or closed I'm unable to say at this moment.

b. whether is also preferred to if:

after prepositions
  • We talked for a long time about whether to support the miners.
  • There's also the question of whether or not to wear a tie to the interview.
before infinitives
  • We don't know whether to wait for him or leave now.
  • She can't decide whether to buy the dress now.
in subject and complement clauses
  • subject clause
    • Whether it will rain or not is the big question.
    • Whether we can wait that long is debatable.
  • complement clause
    • What I want to know is whether you care one way or the other.
    • The question is whether this is the right time to invest.
noun + as to + whether (with certain nouns, especially - debate, discussion, doubt, question, uncertainty)
  • There is some debate as to whether he will be fit to play.
  • Then there's the question as to whether she's suitably qualified.
  • Uncertainty as to whether he'll stand for Parliament is rife.

Ex. 3 - Fill the gaps. Where possible use if, otherwise use whether.

If   ·   Whether   ·   if   ·   whether
1.I don't know you know Peter?
2.It's not so much a matter of as a matter of when.
3.She asked we could look after her dog for the day.
4. you stay or go is totally immaterial to me!
5.I wonder you could tell me the time.
6. you ask me, he's completely round the bend.
7. he loves me enough to fly me to Paris for dinner, that's what I want to know.
8.They asked we were staying in Paris long.
9.Could you advise me the best time to go is in Spring or Autumn.
10.You're going to bed right now, you like it or not.
11.I really don't know to invite her or not.
12.When you see her, ask her she's coming out with us later.
13.Have you had any thoughts as to you want to apply for the job?
14.They wanted to know we were satisfied with our room.
15.The real question is he's been lying all this time.

Whether (or not) to add 'or not'

In yes / no situations we sometimes add or not to if and whether. With if it can only go at the end. Look at these sentences:
  • I wonder if it will rain tomorrow or not.
  • I wonder if or not it will rain tomorrow.
But with whether, it can go immediately after, or at the end of the clause.
  • We're trying to decide whether or not to go to the party .
  • I wonder whether it will rain tomorrow or not.

  • We're leaving for the party, whether or not David is ready.
  • We're going for a walk, whether it's raining or not.
In the first two sentences with whether we are talking about making a choice or about what might happen in the future, in the second two we are saying we will do something whatever an already existing situation is, or regardless of that already existing situation.
In the second pair of sentences, we need that 'or not'. But in the first pair, the 'or not' is not really necessary for the meaning, as it is already implied. Using words that are not really necessary is sometimes called 'redundancy'.


This is a very trendy word on grammar and writing style websites. It has nothing to do with people being laid off (losing their jobs). Redundant means not needed, and some people get very worked up about it. It's definitely worth a whole post to itself one day.
The thing is a lot of us automatically add or not when the purists say we shouldn't. In most circumstances this probably doesn't matter, after all even course books do it. But if you want to major in English at an American university, or impress your grammar-conscious friends, it's probably best to leave it out, especially in writing. Sometimes I use it, sometimes I don't. Look at these two sentences for example:
  • Whether it will rain is the big question.
  • Whether we can wait that long is debatable.
While the second sounds fine to me without 'or not', in the first the 'whether' seems a bit lonely, and I would probably add 'or not'. Don't ask me the difference, but I think it might have something to do with the length of the whether clause. Another possibility is that I don't feel I need it if there is an adverbial involved.
I have to confess I find this indignation about the use of 'redundant' or not a bit of a storm in a teacup. After all we often use redundancy in conversation. For example we use question tags when we aren't really expecting an answer - 'Lovely day, isn't it?'.
Here's another example. When an American walks into a British shop and says , 'How are you?' to a shop assistant who he's never seen before, after the initial shock of being greeted like this by a total stranger, the shop assistant will answer, 'Fine, thanks' or something similar. Meanwhile the American is already over on the other side of the shop. From a British perspective that question was totally redundant, as an answer was never expected. It turns out 'How are you' is in fact American for 'Hello'.

Ex. 4 - Is the or not redundant (or not)?

You are trying to really impress a pedantic grammarian. Decide whether the or not is redundant. Select 'Leave it out' if it is unnecessary, 'Keep it in' if we definitely need it.
it out
it in
1.Whether the sun is shining or not, I'm going to the beach.
2.I don't know whether to go to the beach or not.
3.We always support our team, whether they win or not.
4.I'm going to do it, whether you agree or not.
5.I don't know whether to tell her or not.
6.We haven't decided whether or not to buy a new car.
7.Whether or not we buy a new car I'm not driving all that way.
8.Whether or not we buy a new car is something we will have to consider carefully.

Answers to the exercises

Click on a relevant button and return to the exercise
  1. 1. if, 2. whether, 3. whether, 4. Whether, 5. if, 6. whether, 7. whether, 8. whether, 9. Whether, 10. whether, 11. if, 12. whether
  2. 6, 12, 7, 2, 3, 4, 9, 8, 10
  3. 1. if, 2. whether, 3. if, 4. Whether, 5. if, 6. If, 7. Whether, 8. if, 9. whether, 10. whether, 11. whether, 12. if, 13. whether, 14. if, 15. whether
  4. 1. Keep it in, 2. Leave it out, 3. Keep it in, 4. Keep it in, 5. Leave it out, 6. Leave it out, 7. Keep it in, 8. Leave it out

Printer friendly post

When you print, the page after the exercises will show the answers.
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At 100%, the lesson with exercises goes from Pages 2-8, answers are on Page 9. If you only want the exercises, they are on Pages 2, 4 and 8

Links - if or whether

Links - whether (or not)

Links - songs

Lots of plays on words here with whether and weather
  • Scissor Sisters - I Can't Decide Google
    • I can't decide
    • Whether you should live or die
    • Oh, you'll probably go to heaven
    • Please don't hang your head and cry
  • The Postmarks - Weather the Weather Google
    • whether rain or shine
    • will you be mine
  • Upper Class Trash - Under the Whether Google
    • This stormy weather,
    • has gotten us under the weather,
    • whether you like it or not.


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