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If you can read this, you might learn something


If you can read this, you might learn something

Thank you for your application. We will let you know if we need additional information.

That's the standard response that Mose sends to job applicants, with only occasional embellishment when appropriate.

The if tells the applicant: Don't call us; we'll call you. And you won't necessarily hear from us again.

That raises the issue of if, which is perhaps the most misused word in our language, with only only as a competitor for that ignominious title.

For example, consider the difference in these two sentences.

Tell the waiter if you want a drink.

Tell the waiter whether you want a drink.

The first instructs you to talk to the waiter only in the event that you want a drink.

The second asks that you let the waiter know one way or the other – whether (or not) you want a drink.

But most writers – including professionals – routinely confuse them, using if when they mean whether.

Mose had the if/whether epiphany more than 30 years ago during a seminar at Franklin (Ind.) College conducted by language guru John Bremner. Here is how he explained it:

If is an adverbial conjunction of condition, meaning on the condition that (e.g., in the event that). That condition is essential.

Whether is a nounal conjunction meaning that (or that not).

I can go to the concert if (on the condition that) I can get off work Saturday.

But, I don't know whether (or not) I can get off work to go to the concert.

Writers frequently use if when whether is needed.

When asked if he was going to run for governor, ... should be, When asked whether ...

I don't know if I can afford it. ... should be, I don't know whether I can afford it.

Learn the difference, and you'll be in the 1 percent of writers who get it right.

And it might get you a job.