‘Will’ after ‘whether’ in English

by Jakub Marian

Tip: See my list of the Most Common Mistakes in English. It will teach you how to avoid mis­takes with com­mas, pre­pos­i­tions, ir­reg­u­lar verbs, and much more (PDF Version).

You were probably taught that you shouldn’t use “will” after “if” in conditional clauses, for example:

If you don’t receive the email, give me a call. (correct)
If you won’t receive the email, give me a call. (wrong)

This rule can be seemingly broken in some situations because “will” can be used also as a modal verb (a verb like “can”, “may”, etc.) meaning “be willing to”, “be so kind as to”. There’s no reason why such a verb couldn’t be used in conditional sentences, for example:

If you will excuse me, I must go now.

This is not the future tense of “excuse” but the present tense of “will”, meaning:

If you are so kind as to excuse me, I must go now.

There is, however, also another type of sentences in which the rule can be (seemingly) broken, which leads us to the main topic of this article:

If, whether, and will

“Whether” usually doesn’t introduce a conditional clause; instead, it introduces an indirect question. For example:

I don’t know whether he has an iPhone.
[What I don't know is: Does he have an iPhone?]

Since this is not a conditional clause, there’s no reason not to use the future tense when appropriate:

I can’t decide whether I will buy an iPhone or an Android phone.
[I can't decide: Will I buy an iPhone or an Android phone?]

“If” is often used in the meaning of “whether”, especially in the spoken language. If you can replace “if” in the sentence by “whether”, what follows is not a conditional clause, so the future can be expressed using “will”:

I am not sure whether he will be there tomorrow. (correct)
I am not sure if he will be there tomorrow. (correct, informal)
I am not sure if he is there tomorrow. (wrong)

Note, however, that there’s also a less common meaning of “whether” which does introduce a conditional clause, and so we don’t use “will”. This is best demonstrated using an example:

Whether the cake arrives or not, we will celebrate. (correct)
Whether the cake will arrive or not, we will celebrate. (wrong)

The first clause is to be understood as

If the cake arrives or if the cake doesn’t arrive (in either case), we will celebrate.

“Whether” used in this sense is always followed by “or not” (but seeing “or not” after whether doesn’t imply it was used in this sense).

By the way, if you haven’t read my guide on how to avoid the most common mistakes in English, make sure to check it out; it deals with similar topics.

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