The Meaning of Whether: What It Is and How To Use It

Do you know the definition of whether? This article will provide you with all of the information you need on the word whether, including its definition, etymology, usage, example sentences, and more!

Your writing, at its best

Compose bold, clear, mistake-free, writing with Grammarly's AI-powered writing assistant

What does the word whether mean?

According to Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language and Cambridge English Dictionary, the word whether is a conjunction that is used as a function word to as either a direct question consisting of multiple alternatives, an indirect interrogative question, or a simple indirect question involving alternatives. This can also be used to refer to alternative conditions or possibilities. Dictionary states that it can be used as either a coordinating or a subordinating conjunction. Someone could use the word whether to describe possible variants in circumstances. For example, someone could say, “We are going shopping tomorrow whether it rains or not. I don’t want to let it wait until Sunday.” This word can also be used to present alternative possibilities from the main clause of the sentence, such as, “He was not sure whether he could attend the play or if he would have to watch his little brother that night.” The word whether is often used to create a comparative form of two possibilities. This could be a matter of judgment or opinion. The word whether can be used in both casual English and proper English, and is not considered one of many slang words that should not be used in formal settings. 

Many different languages use words that mean whether as a means of introducing indirect questions. You may notice that some of these words look very similar to one another. These are called cognates, which are words and phrases that look and sound similar while retaining the same meaning between languages. These are often formed when two words have the same root or language of origin like Latin or Greek. This list of translations for the word whether is provided by Word Sense.

  • Portuguese: se‎ (masc.)
  • Russian: ли‎ (placed after the first word in the sentence or phrase)
  • Ancient Greek: πότερον‎, πότερα‎, εἰ‎
  • Hungarian: -e‎, vajon‎
  • Esperanto: ĉu‎
  • Vietnamese: có … không‎
  • Belarusian: чы‎
  • Serbo-Croatian: da li‎
  • Japanese: かどうか‎ (…ka dō ka), か‎ (ka)
  • Dutch: of‎
  • Galician: se‎
  • Lojban: xukau‎
  • Swedish: om‎, ifall‎, huruvida‎
  • Finnish: -ko / -kö (particle appended to the verb)
  • Novial: ob‎
  • Romanian: dacă‎
  • Spanish: si‎, si … o‎
  • Occitan: se‎, si‎
  • Hebrew: האם‎ (ha`ím), אם‎ (ím)
  • Persian: آیا‎ (âyâ)
  • Bokmål: hvorvidt‎
  • Mandarin: 是否‎ (shìfǒu)
  • Pashto: که‎ (ka)
  • Bulgarian: дали‎ (dalí)
  • German: ob‎
  • Arabic: إِذَا‎, سَوَاء‎
  • Czech: zda‎, zdali‎
  • Norwegian: om‎
  • Lithuanian: ar‎
  • Icelandic: hvort‎
  • Polish: czy‎
  • French: si‎, que‎, soit‎
  • Ukrainian: чи‎
  • Macedonian: дали‎ (dáli)

How can the word whether be used in a sentence?

The word whether is extremely versatile and can be used in a variety of different ways. In the below examples, the word whether will be used as a conjunction. In this first example, Trevor has been accused of cheating on a text and talks to his mother about it. 

Trevor: Mom, I promise. I did not cheat on that test.

Mom: Whether you actually cheated or not, you’re still being punished. You have betrayed my trust.

Trevor: How did I betray your trust? I didn’t do anything wrong?

In this next example, Trevor and his mom make plans for Trevor’s birthday.

Trevor: I want to go to the beach for my birthday

Mom: It’s supposed to rain on Saturday.

Trevor: I don’t care whether it rains or not, it’ll be fun.

Mom: It won’t be fun when you have to clean out muddy sand from my car.

Finally, in this example, Trevor is having problems with a friend.

Trevor: I’m not sure whether he’s avoiding me or if he really is busy, but it hurts either way.

Mom: Trevor, I think the only way for you to resolve this is to talk to him. I know that is not an easy thing to do, but I believe it will bring the both of you a lot of closure.

Trevor: You are probably right.

In all three of the previous examples, the word whether is used as a conjunction. This word is used in many different sentences and contexts in the English language, and it is a word that one will see very frequently. 

What is the origin of the word whether?

According to Etymonline, the word whether comes from the Old English hwæðer, Old English hwæther, Old English hwether or Old English hweðer. These come from the Proto-Germanic gihwatharaz, which also provides the cognates in the Old Saxon hwedar, Old Norse hvatharr or hvarr, Gothic hwathar, Old Frisian hweder, Old High German hwedar, and German weder. This is from the interrogative base khwa meaning who, from the Proto-Indo-European root kwo. This is affixed to the comparative suffix theraz which also has cognate compounds in the Sanskrit katarah, Avestan katara-, Greek poteros, Latin uter, Lithuanian katras and Old Church Slavonic koteru. This was also used in Middle English as a pronoun and adjective. The phrase whether or not has been used since the 1650s. 

What are synonyms for the word whether?

There are few different words that a person can use in place of the word whether, but usually conjunctions such as whether or other words that are used to ask questions are very specific and do not have many words that one can use in its place in the English language. This list of synonyms for the word whether is provided by Thesaurus

  • If
  • In case
  • Even if

Overall, the word whether is a conjunction that is used to present two or more possibilities to a statement. This word is extremely versatile and is used in many different ways. Try using this word in a sentence today!