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The Word

The whether report

Readers weigh in on a classic debate

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Jan Freeman
June 22, 2008

DO YOU SEE what Grammar Girl sees? That's the question I asked two weeks ago, when I confessed I couldn't find a difference between two sentences that the usage podcaster said were distinct.

Reader Diane Finnegan, and 40 others (so far), could see what Grammar Girl was aiming at:

"Squiggly didn't know whether Aardvark would arrive on Friday or Saturday sounds as if Aardvark is definitely coming, but the day is not known for certain.

"Squiggly didn't know if Aardvark would arrive on Friday or Saturday sounds as if Aardvark may not be coming at all."

Even among those who saw it, enthusiasm for the distinction varied widely. Some thought it was almost undetectable; at the other extreme, the Katharine Gibbs school - according to Rose Doherty, who taught business writing there - outlaws the "if" version entirely. Its handbook limits "if" to conditional clauses: "If wishes were horses, beggars would ride."

Grammar Girl doesn't go that far. She knows that "if" can legitimately mean "whether," despite Katie Gibbs's disapproval. It's been used that way forever; the Oxford English Dictionary cites examples from "Beowulf," written down 1,000 years ago, and quotes the 1611 King James Bible: "He sent forth a dove . . . to see if the waters were abated."

This "if" is standard, says the American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage, for "introducing a clause indicating uncertainty after a verb such as ask, doubt, know, learn, or see." The question is not whether "if" is allowed here, but whether "whether" is, for some reason or in some constructions, better.

Like so many usage debates, this one was unknown before the 18th century, and it didn't really catch fire till the mid-1900s. No consensus has emerged, however. H.W. Fowler didn't mention "if" for "whether," nor did Strunk and White. Bergen Evans, in his 1957 Contemporary American Usage, said the distinction was a myth: "If never has been restricted [to conditional clauses] and is not now."

These days, the usagists who defend the distinction - Bryan Garner, the American Heritage guide (halfheartedly) - claim that "if" is flawed because it can be misread as conditional. And yes, it can: In "Let me know if you want a ticket," the "if" clause could be either the object of the verb (equivalent to "Let me know whether you want a ticket") or a conditional ("If you want a ticket, let me know").

But in practice, how often will that be confusing? Garner says that "Let me know if you'll be coming" means "respond only if you are coming." I hope he doesn't run his social life on that basis. Some invitees ignore even that social sledgehammer, a postage-paid reply card; how likely are they to catch the subtlety of Garner's "if"?

Grammar Girl, however, is focusing on a narrower case of "if/whether," the sentence that offers two choices. Like The New York Times stylebook, she believes only "whether" limits the sense to those choices. In this analysis, "I don't know whether she wants chocolate or vanilla" would mean "I know she wants one or the other." But "I don't know if she wants chocolate or vanilla" would mean "She might want Rocky Road, or a piece of pie."

Maybe I lack imagination, but I just don't see that complexity in little old "if." Sure, I can posit situations and intonations that would convey such subtle meanings: "Is Aardvark arriving Saturday or Sunday?" you ask. Replies Squiggly, exasperatedly: "I don't know if he's arriving Saturday OR Sunday." But I would never infer that sense merely from seeing the "if" version in cold print. And I doubt many others would either.

But try it yourself: According to this "if/whether" rule, these quotes (from Google News) would mean something different if the "if" were changed to "whether":

"McCain was asked if he preferred a Mac or PC."

"I didn't know if it was Ashley or Mary-Kate."

"I couldn't tell if it hit the lip of my glove or if it hit the ground."

"The waitress asked if I wanted buns or corn bread."

"I couldn't tell if I had purchased a bucket of fries with cheese or a bucket of cheese with fries."

Even if you see a distinction, can you trust that your readers do? Probably not: Four of the respondents who told me they saw a difference between the two Squiggly sentences read them in exactly the opposite way from everyone else. For these readers, the "whether" sentence meant Aardvark might not come at all, and the "if" sentence meant he'd arrive, for sure, either Saturday or Sunday.

For me, that's the clincher. If most readers won't catch your subtle distinction, and some will read it as the reverse of what you intend, that distinction has a marginal and perilous existence. If we let it die quietly, would anyone really notice?

E-mail Jan Freeman at freeman@globe.com. For past columns, go to boston.com/ideas. Visit the new Word blog at boston.com/ideas/theword.

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