“If” vs. “Whether”- How should I use them?

If and whether are two English words that are commonly used, but also frequently misused. For many people, goofing them up might seem quite harmless if they are not familiar with the difference these words bring to the sentence. For others, it is plain confusion!

Well, irrespective of the reason, it is important to know the difference between if and whether if ‘fluency’ is on your writing checklist!

How about we help you tick that off?

If is used to describe a condition.

  • I will work from home today if it rains heavily.
  • We will increase the substrate concentration if we do not observe any change in the enzyme activity.

You can see that in both these sentences, if is used to add a condition for an action.

Whether is used to describe possibilities or options.

  • I am yet to decide whether to work from home today.
  • The key clinical question is whether all patients with resectable rectal cancer should receive preoperative radiotherapy.

Here, whether tells us about the options that are available. Whether is usually accompanied by ‘or not’; in most cases, it can be dropped.

How are if and whether different?

To understand the difference between if and whether, let us look at the following example:

  • We need to determine whether the stunted growth observed in these plants is due to deficiency of nitrogen or magnesium.
  • We need to determine if the stunted growth observed in these plants is due to deficiency of nitrogen or magnesium.

When whether is used, it suggests that only two possibilities are being considered, i.e., deficiency of either nitrogen or magnesium. However, when we replace whether with if, the sentence suggests more than two possibilities. In our example, the possibilities could be deficiency of either nitrogen or magnesium, both, or none!

This is how if and whether differ from each other. Now you know that interchanging these words can modify the meaning of the sentence considerably. Such an error can lead to miscommunication easily, more so in academic writing.

So, how can we avoid such errors? Remember

  • Use if for conditional sentences.
  • Use whether for presenting two alternatives.

Quite easy, isn’t it? If there are any other such words that have baffled you, let us know in the comments section!

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