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What’s the difference between “if” and “whether”?

Studio Album by Mindless Self Indulgence album

One of my students asked me this question recently so I thought I’d write a blog post about it because it looks like a question that often bugs English learners.

As usual, looking at some examples will make the rule clearer. So here you go:

Whether

  1. I asked Jenny whether she is coming to the party.*
  2. Whether you like it or not, you’ll have to tidy up your room!

In the first example it’s unsure whether Jenny is coming to the party or not. This is why you use whether instead of if: the outcome is not certain – she might come or she might not come.

In the second example, “whether you like it or not” is a set sentence that means “it doesn’t matter if/whether you like it or you don’t like it”. Being a set sentence, this time you can’t replace whether with if: if you like it or not –wrong!

* Note: it’s not uncommon to hear native speakers use if instead of whether in similar sentences.

If

If I had more money, I’d buy a house.
What if I quit my job?
If it rains, I won’t go out

If is usually found in conditional sentences like the ones above. In this case, you can’t use whether because you’re presenting only one option/possible scenario: that of you having more money, that of you quitting your job etc

TIP: when to use whether and when to use if

If you can add “or not” to a sentence and it still makes perfect sense, then you know you can use whether:

My decision to come depends on whether my wife wants me to (or not)

>> in this instance my decision on whether or not to come will depend on whether or not my wife wants me to.

In all other instances, just go for if!

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Christmas: vocabulary

When I was a kid Christmas meant Father Christmas, putting up  a Christmas tree alongside a Nativity Scene (yep I had a religious upbringing!) greeting cards, my mum’s poinsettia, advent calendar and unwrapping presents.

The Christmas tree would have everything on it: lights, baubles, various hanging decorations, tinsel and the unmissable star at the top.

Also, I have fading memories of wearing a reindeer costume at a Christmas recital at school where we had to sing Christmas Carols. I have even (if possible!) more painful memories of trying to ice-skate at a local ice rink (once I gave up ice-skating, Christmas simply meant making snowmen and going downhill on a sledge).

In my family Christmas has always involved sitting where your place card would say, eating enormous amounts of food on Christmas’ Eve, Christmas Day, Boxing Day and then more on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. Actually, we also celebrate January 6th, the day the Three Wise Men brought gifts for the baby Jesus and, when you were little, the day you would find out whether you had been a good kid or a brat. Sweets in your stocking (that would be hanging by the fireplace if you had one) meant good kid, coal meant naughty kid.

The time I spent Christmas in England, it meant Christmas crackers, Christmas pudding, raisins, turkey and the never missing rerun of A Muppet Christmas Carol.

A few years ago, Christmas just meant Christmas rush, knitting a lot of hats for family members (that would turn out to be too small or too big) but now that I do all my Christmas shopping online Christmas to me means just flying back home, letting myself being spoiled by my mother’s cuisine, watching snowflakes falling down and enjoying my beloved nieces.

Feeling Christmassy yet?

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The power of concision in the English language

less-is-more-300x300I often find myself telling students “if you can think of a shorter sentence to say the same thing in English, just go for the shortest option!”. Compared to other languages (Italian for instance) English is much more functional and prone to conciseness.

There are many ways in which English shows up this feature. One of these is the use of the gerund in place of a whole clause*. Let’s look at this example:

You being all angry about it won’t get us anywhere.

‘You being all angry’ is a gerund phrase that in the above sentence could potentially be replaced with ‘the fact that you’re all angry’. But to my ear, the gerund sounds much more like natural English.

A gerund can be used as a subject of a sentence (like in the previous example) or an object:

I don’t agree with you moving abroad (=the fact that you want to move abroad)

Finally, the gerund acting as a noun can do what nouns can do. For instance, being preceded by a possessive:

I don’t understand your writing (=the way you write)

so yeah Less is More! 🙂

*to put it in a nutshell, a clause is a grammatical unit identified by a subject and a verb. So, for instance, Mary thinks that John is an idiot is formed by two clauses: 1. Mary thinks  2. John is an idiot
(you can usually tell the number of clauses in a period by looking at the number of verbs)