March 18, 2010

Language Tips: Whether or if and whether or whether or not & omitting that

Posted in if/whether, omitting that, whether or not at 9:19 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: Whether or if and whether or whether or not

A reader writes;

In a student paper, I found this sentence:

I would consider if this case presented emergent circumstances in which the physicians did not need to obtain parental consent.

Should the ‘if’ be ‘whether’? May ‘whether’ only be used with ‘or not’?

Let’s take the first question first: should the ‘if’ be ‘whether’? The answer is yes, and this is why.

Informally, the words can often be used interchangeably.

The investigator did not know whether the experiment would be successful.

The investigator did not know if the experiment would be successful.

In both sentences, there is a possibility that the experiment will be successful, and there is a possibility that it won’t be successful.

However, in formal writing such as the writing we do for grant proposals and manuscripts, we make a distinction between the two. ‘Whether’ is used when there are two possible outcomes.

The patient asked the doctor whether the antibiotics would cure his virus.

In this study, we hope to determine whether lower health literacy is associated with decreased medication adherence.

In both of these examples, there are two alternatives: the antibiotics will either cure or not cure the virus, and the level of health literacy is or is not associated with the level of adherence.

‘If’ is used when the sentence is conditional, that is, the outcome depends on something else happening.

If the experiment is successful, she is going to write about it in a manuscript.

In this example, the manuscript is going to be written only if one condition is met and that condition is the experiment being successful.

The orchestra is going to play the Bach piece if the Dvorak music does not arrive in time.

In this example, the condition is the arrival of the Dvorak music.

Maybe the following examples will help to clarify when to use ‘whether’ or ‘if.’

The meteorologist was unable to say if it was going to rain on Saturday or Sunday.

Here, the meteorologist is unsure of the rain conditions on either Saturday or Sunday or on the weekend, altogether.

The meteorologist was unable to say whether it was going to rain on Saturday or Sunday.

Here, while the meteorologist is unable to state on which weekend day it will rain, it is sure that there will be rain on one of the days.

Finally going back to a previous example:

If the experiment is successful, she is going to write about it in a manuscript.

We noted that the results of the experiment will determine whether an article is written, if we use ‘whether,’ the meaning changes:

Whether or not the experiment is successful, she is going to write about it in a manuscript.

Here, the manuscript will be written, no matter what.

And this brings us to the second question the writer had: should ‘whether’ only be used with ‘or not’?

Most of the time, the ‘or not’ is optional, and the preferred usage is to omit it; however, when you are communicating ‘regardless of whether’ as in the above example, the ‘or not’ is required.

Tip 2: Omitting that

A reader writes:

The first is an excerpt from a student-written paper; the second is my “correction.” I know my correction is correct, but is it necessary?

The article raises the ethical question about whether medical residency programs should accept financial incentives from drug industries knowing surveys have shown their gifts as small as a pen or food can influence prescribing patterns.

The article raises the ethical question about whether medical residency programs should accept financial incentives from drug industries knowing that surveys have shown that their gifts as small as a pen or food can influence prescribing patterns.

In this context, ‘that’ is used as a conjunction, linking two clauses. Often, when used this way, ‘that’ can be omitted; however, it can only be omitted when the meaning of the sentence remains clear without it. I think the writer is correct in saying ‘that’ makes an important contribution to the meaning of the sentence, so I would leave both ‘thats’ in the sentence. On the other hand, I would delete ‘their’ following the second ‘that’ as it is unnecessary and seems awkward.

The so-called rules around when to use ‘that’ and when to omit it are pretty soft and fuzzy. Let me try to delineate some of them.

There are some verbs often called verbs of thought or feeling or reporting verbs (e.g., think, know, feel, say, learn, discover, tell, find). In sentences using these verbs, ‘that’ is often omitted without problem.

I think (that) the article will be published in one of the major journals.

In sentences with two-word conjunctions (e.g., so that, now that), ‘that’ is often omitted.

I am going to finish developing this exam so (that) I can start writing the curriculum for the next course.

When ‘that’ is used as a relative pronoun, it is often omitted.

The research (that) he carried out over the last two years is truly impressive.

I think that we want to avoid ambiguity and confusion, so you will have to decide how much clarity ‘that’ brings to each sentence. In our formal writing, my recommendation, more often than not, would be to use the ‘that.’

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