On If and Whether

Among the many quirks of the English language is the use of the conjunctions if and whether to make conditional statements.  While this is probably beyond boring to most of you, it holds a certain appeal to my nerdy proclivities.

My trusty dictionary tells me that if hails from the Old High German ibu and the Old and Middle English words yif and gif.  Whether came down through the Old English and Middle English hwether.  I find it interesting that these words have inched towards each other like tentative lovers over the centuries, until today they are often used interchangeably.

If is one of the shortest English words ending in f, sharing that honor with the preposition of and the letter ef itself.  While not onomatopoeic (it doesn’t sound like a thing that it describes), the vowel followed by f gives if a visceral sound akin to the interjection oof!  Humorously, whether is a homophone of the climate-related word weather, happenstance that has been celebrated in numerous corny pop songs over the decades.

I am delighted when I hear someone draw out the vowel sound in if to emphasize the conditional nature of what follows.  This may be accompanied by “open” body language that may include an up and down movement of the hands to indicate that this truly could go either way.  Indeed, the alternate raising and lowering of the hands (palms open, thumbs and forefingers forming the letter F), is how if is expressed in American Sign Language.

I am frequently called upon to prepare flow charts at work, a context in which the word if is important.  Computer scientists sometimes call conditional statements “if/then” statements.  If A, then B.  Should the condition A be found to exist, we know to go straight to B.  Of course, this doesn’t mean that we can’t eventually reach B by other means.  But the if provides a way of creating a branch in the logic.  At the precise moment at which we reach the fork in the road, the condition is either A or “not A.”  This lets us know which fork to choose.

It’s also rather cool that, over time, we’ve managed to turn the conjunction if into an adjective.  If a situation is particularly tenuous, teetering right on the fence if you will, we say that it is iffy.  It is a way of saying “this is by no means certain” and frequently carries the connotation that the condition in question is far more likely to fail than to succeed.  (As for the poets among us, the word provides a convenient rhyme for jiffy, spiffy or, for our Irish friends, the River Liffey.)

I often compare interesting English words to their equivalents in French, the only other language in which I have any degree of fluency.  The conditional word (“if” or “whether”) in French is si (and often expressed in the contraction s’il).  S’il ne pleut pas aujourd’hui, je marcherai à mon bureau. (If it doesn’t rain today, I’ll walk to the office.)  French also has the idiom si on allait, which has the literal meaning of “if one were to go” but is actually the equivalent of the English suggestion “let’s.”  Back in junior high, I remember repeating the sentence Si on allait faire du ski! (“Let’s go skiing!”)  Ugh, let’s not.  (I remember the following paragraph contained the phrase je me suis cassé la jambe… “I broke my leg.”)

Although I have a very limited command of Spanish (like French, a Romance language — the two have many words and linguistic constructs in common), I am told that si is also used for conditional statements (not to be confused with ¡Sí!… “yes!”).  There is a lot of Spanish spoken here in California, and I’ve heard the phrase es o si (“This one or that one?”), sometimes followed by a rather forceful ¿Qué es? (“Well, which one is it?”).

This Spanish example is a great illustration of how the word if has evolved in English over the years.  If is no longer used exclusively to indicate a possible condition that may or may not exist now/occur in the future; it is often used nearly synonymously with whether or which to indicate a choice between two things.

The linguistic purists among us may still identify a distinct difference between if and whether.  In fact, however, the distinction has become so blurred as to have virtually faded out.  Your friend may say “Let me know if you’re going to the party.”  Arguably, she means “let me know whether you’re going to the party.”  In colloquial English, the two statements have been rendered indistinguishable.

Those purists whom I mentioned may insist that “let me know if you’re going to the party” means that your friend is asking you to call her should you decide to attend the festivities; no action needed should you decide to stay home.  What your friend really means, however, is that she would like you to be forthcoming with information either way, to provide her with a definite answer, “yes, I am going” or “no, I am staying home.”  Probably.  As always, context is king.  “Course of dealing” is paramount; based on your many previous conversations with your friend, you know what she means (although I, stranger to the situation, may not).

Another interesting thing about the word whether is that it is often, implicitly or explicitly, part of the phrase “whether or not.”  One may say “let me know whether or not you’re going” or simply “let me know whether you’re going.”  In the latter case, is the “or not” implied?  Or, in the former case, is the “or not” mere surplusage that adds nothing by its presence?  My next example may make you think twice about this.

The words if and whether are definitely not interchangeable when used to lead off a dependent clause (often at the start of a sentence).  Your mother may say “If you go to the store, please pick up a gallon of milk for me.”  You know she’s not going to say “Whether you go to the store, please pick up a gallon of milk for me.”  That would certainly grate upon the ear and may ultimately cause one to imply the “or not” following “whether,” thereby completely changing the speaker’s intent and the meaning of the sentence.  (Go to the store or don’t, see if I care!  But pick up a gallon of milk for me, whatever you do.)

If you’ve enjoyed this discussion at all, please say so in the comments so that I will know whether to go off on further linguistic tangents in future posts.  Thank you.

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2 thoughts on “On If and Whether

  1. Keep flowing with your linguistic mojo because clearly it is a passion of yours. Pursuing and investigating a passion is what its all about, right?

    As for me, while linguistic and etimology knowledge is not something I seek out, I noticed a few years back that it is an strong interest of my friends (I’ve written myself into a corner here) with whom long conversations are the most productive and enjoyable. Basically, I like hanging out with people like yourself. Carry on!

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