“Whether … or …” may show indirect questions, denied conditions, or a pair of simple alternatives
THE VARIABILITY OF “whether … or … “
Whether … or … is one of the combinations mentioned in the post 64. Double Conjunctions, alongside such pairs as both … and … and either … or … . However, whether … or … seems to be more complicated than the other double conjunctions, and hence in need of deeper analysis. I promised a whole post devoted to it, and here is where I finally feel able to deliver on that.
Grammar books tend to say that whether … or … has two separate uses: in indirect questions and in conditional sentences. I feel, though, that there is a third one too: more like either … or … than anything else. I aim to describe all three of these uses and to indicate when whether … or … should be used instead of whether, if … or and either … or … .
USAGE IN INDIRECT QUESTIONS
The indirect question use of whether … or is very like that of whether by itself (see 57. Indirect Questions in Formal Writing). This means that the following verb may be in either the ordinary form, with its own subject, or the infinitive form (after to) without a subject (see 105. Questions with a “to” Verb), and, when there is an ordinary following verb, whether can be replaced by if. The difference when or is present is that the answer to the question is not yes or no, but a repetition of one half:
(a) Please CLARIFY whether/if you WISH to proceed or (you WISH to) cancel.
The answer here has to be either “I wish to proceed” or “I wish to cancel”. This means that questions with whether … or … are the indirect equivalent of a pair of direct yes/no questions linked by or. Reasons for choosing the direct or indirect forms of questions are suggested in the post 57. Indirect Questions in Formal Writing.
Like all indirect question words, whether and or are conjunctions: they each have a following verb (the second of which can be left unsaid) and they join these two verbs to the main one in the sentence (see 30. When to Use a Full Stop). The questions that they make occupy noun positions in sentences. In (a), the whether … or … question occupies the noun position of object (of clarify).
USAGE LIKE “if”
This use of whether … or … again joins two verbs onto a third, but is adverb-like rather than noun-like – it has to be outside the typical noun positions in a sentence of subject, object and complement. Examples are:
(c) Whether they WON or LOST, the children received a prize.
(d) Drug-smuggling WILL BE a problem whether efforts ARE MADE to control supply or (efforts ARE MADE to control) demand.
If the two joined expressions each contain the lone verb BE – e.g. Whether they were victors or (were) losers …– you can replace whether they were with be they … (see 88. Some Exotic Grammar Structures, point 6).
The link with if sentences is a little confusing: whereas if always shows that what follows is a condition, whether … or … specifically indicates that it is not. A condition is something that may or may not happen or exist but must happen or exist in order to allow something else to happen or exist (see 118. Problems with Conditional “if”). Some conditions are more likely than others to happen or exist (see 179. Deeper Meanings of “if”). Consider the following modification of sentence (c):
(e) If they won or lost, the children received a prize
This means that there were conditions for the children receiving a prize: winning and losing. Winning did not always happen and neither did losing. Sentence (c), on the other hand, says that winning and losing were not conditions for a prize: all of the children received one unconditionally.
It might be asked how if … or … can differ from whether … or … when in the examples above both say all of the children received a prize (winning and losing being the only possibilities). I think if … or … nevertheless indicates conditions. In (e) it suggests that each child’s prize was explicitly linked with either winning or losing (“And now here is Johnny’s prize for not winning”). Using whether … or …, on the other hand, makes no such a link (“Now it is Johnny’s turn to receive his prize”).
The essential condition-denying meaning of whether … or … is supported by the fact that one can always add the words regardless of before whether.
Sentence (d) above shows a slightly different way of denying a conditional meaning through whether … or … . Unlike in (c), the two statements with whether … or … become illogical if whether is changed to if: efforts to control (drug) supply is an unlikely condition for drug-smuggling being a problem; in fact, it is a possible condition for the opposite situation – fewer problems. Whether … or … is here similar in meaning to despite. This meaning is not discoverable from any grammar clues: it is our knowledge of the world that makes it clear.
One final observation about condition-denying whether … or … is that the two non-conditional statements tend to cover all of the possibilities. In (c) winning and losing are the only alternatives; in (d) supply and demand are the only areas that can be controlled. If can also be used when only two possibilities exist, but is found elsewhere too:
(f) Demand will fall if prices rise or substitutes appear.
Here, other possible conditions for falling demand (e.g. fashion) are not ruled out.
USAGE LIKE “either … or …”
The third use of whether … or … is in some sentences where either … or … is also grammatically possible, like this:
(g) Success is possible whether/either through hard work or basic ability.
This equivalence exists only when the words after either … or … lack a verb. There would be no possibility of using whether in a sentence like the following:
(h) Clients can either PAY immediately or WAIT until they depart.
The difference between either and whether in sentences like (g) seems to be in the status of the alternatives listed after them. Either suggests that they are being communicated to the reader as important new information, whereas whether may imply that the reader already knows them, the main point of the sentence being the message of the preceding words – success is possible in (g).
Consider this further example:
(i) Please write clearly, either in ink or pencil.
Either seems better here if the speaker is giving instructions to listeners who have not previously raised the question of writing implements. Whether seems preferable, on the other hand, if there has been previous discussion of this matter, for example a positive response to a candidate asking May I write in pencil?
The possibility of saying something that the addressee is expected to know already is widespread in English. For other examples, see 156. Mentioning what the Reader Knows Already.
The difference between the meanings of whether and either may affect the punctuation before them, a comma being less frequent before either than before whether. Whether may indeed need a comma most of the time. Either seems to need one only to show that the information before has the same importance as that after. Thus, in (i) the comma before either means that two different instructions are being given (the need to write clearly and the need to use ink or a pencil). Without this comma, more importance would be given to the latter.
One final noteworthy point is that both either … or … and whether … or … can be ambiguous in the same way, meaning either that only one of the alternatives is the right one (the speaker not being sure which) or that there is a free choice between them. Both meanings seem possible in (g), but (i) has only the latter.