A Storytelling Serial
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In a recent blog post, I explored the universal experience of fear.
This time, in honor of the season, I focus on a specific terror: when and how to use the seven deadly confusions of if, whether, whether or not, like, as, as if, and as though in your writing.
And if those slipup specters don’t scare you, then either (1) you don’t frighten easily, (2) you assume anyone who reads your words won’t be spooked by your errors, or (3) you’ve already laid these grammar ghosts to rest.
Whether unperturbed or already initiated, please continue reading as though you’re curious, even if not fearful. And for those who feel a shiver down the spine, maybe I can calm your nerves by shining a little light on grammar that tries to disappear into the shadows. As if.
Channeling If or Whether?
The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition, provides a way through the ectoplasm of the if-whether danger. Its wonderful “Glossary of Problematic Words and Phrases,” by Bryan Garner of Garner’s Modern English Usage, explains that “while if is conditional, whether introduces an alternative” (or, put another way, an either-or possibility).
To best understand the conditional if, think in terms of “if-then”: If you want to write clearly, then use if to set up the specific condition for the resulting action.
If you don’t, then your meaning might be ambiguous. For instance, the sentence “Please tell me if my writing confuses you” actually says, “If my writing confuses you, then please tell me; if not, then you don’t need to tell me anything.”
On the other hand, “Please tell me if my writing confuses you” might be intended to introduce an alternative or possibility: “Does my writing confuse you? Please tell me either way.”
For that meaning, it’s just as easy, and much less confusing, to write, “Please tell me whether my writing confuses you.”
Again, reserve if for suggesting the result of a dependent if-then relationship: “Write carefully if you care about clarity.” Or “If you care about clarity, write carefully.”
And if you’re ever befuddled by how to choose between the if-then conditional if and the either-or possibility whether, start with the latter. You’ll know immediately whether that’s the meaning you need. If so, keep it; if not, switch to if.
Starting with whether works because if is so commonly misused that you may not see the error when you’re the one making it; but when if is needed instead of whether, that error will jump out and grab you.
To illustrate, you’d immediately recognize the incorrect usage in “I must stay safe whether my fear is real.” The obvious choice is “I must stay safe if my fear is real”—and you’d instinctively know it’s right without needing to summon the ogres of conditional or alternative.
To Whether or Not?
Of course, you can give that previous sentence an entirely different meaning by revising to “I must stay safe whether or not my fear is real.”
This leads to a new bugaboo, though: when to tack or not to your whether.
The Chicago Manual of Style’s “Glossary of Problematic Words and Phrases” comes to the rescue once more. Most of the time or not is unnecessary wordiness. The either-or possibility is included in the meaning of whether, and readers don’t need the redundancy of or not to tell them you’re describing an alternative.
“I don’t know whether my fear is real” says it all.
But when you want to specifically indicate “regardless of whether,” then or not is needed: “I must stay safe whether or not my fear is real” means that the reality of my fear is irrelevant. Staying safe is all that matters.
What’s Not to Like?
Like is a preposition; and like any preposition—such as about or under--like indicates a relationship to a noun, noun phrase, or pronoun: ”I don’t know about her, [preposition→pronoun], but I’m under the spell [preposition→noun phrase] of any author who writes like Raymond Chandler [preposition→noun].
That said, we can probably thank decades of clever marketing copy for the zombie of like used as a conjunction that connects to a clause (a group of words that has both a subject and a verb), despite grammar tradition that frowns on like preceding a clause.
For instance, this subject-verb clause was part of a well-known ad campaign in the last century: “a cigarette [subject] should [verb].” And truth in advertising aside, grammarians would have preferred “tastes good as a cigarette should” instead of the familiar phrase, “tastes good like a cigarette should.”
The reason? Both as and as if (the choice depends on the meaning needed in the sentence) are conjunctions that can connect to a clause—again, a group of words with both a subject and a verb. But like is not a conjunction.
So instead of “Write like advertising breaks all the rules,” choose “Write as if advertising breaks all the rules.”
Still, because they’ve grown accustomed to the misuse, many readers no longer care whether like properly appears only as a preposition before a noun or pronoun. On the other hand, that distinction still matters—a lot—to some readers. To avoid raising any hackles, get in the habit of choosing as or as if when you need a connection to a subject-verb clause. It’s an easy way to avoid offense.
Ah, yet now we’ve raised another harrowing bogey: is there a difference between “as if” and “as though”?
Garner’s Modern English Usage banishes this dread. Generally, these two idioms are used interchangeably; often, the choice depends on which sounds best in your sentence—although “as if” is seen more often in the writing wild.
But if you want a more objective way to decide between the two, Garner advises, use “as if” when introducing a hypothetical idea, and choose “as though” with a credible possibility.
Here’s how the difference works: “We write as if pursued by demons” (hypothetical) versus “We write as though our words matter” (credible).
When Shouldn’t You Sweat?
The spooky truth is that English language and the way we use it is in constant flux. Many dark nights of the soul take place on the battleground between prescriptivists—traditionalists who cling to rules—and descriptivists—observers who report the slow, careful remaking of usage.
Context and register provide their own shades of gray. The environment of fiction is different from the setting of nonfiction, and both contain genre subcategories with specific conventions around grammar.
Within those multiple contexts, register helps determine grammatical expectations. Dialogue? In today’s fiction, written speech is usually informal. Emails and blogs? Again, use grammar to sound conversational. But writing intended to be professional or scholarly generally holds to the register of formal rules.
That’s not to say that using an agreed-upon system automatically makes writing seem stuffy. In fact, knowing and applying rules can make your prose readable, regardless of context and register, because accepted standards give your words clarity. Readers won’t have to stop and guess what meaning hides behind a cloak of idiosyncratic usage and punctuation.
My ghostbusting recommendation, then, is to protect yourself from grammar horrors by understanding and either following accepted usage—or deviating because you know how and why. Clear writing demands that we never cower before continuous learning.
Are you breathing easy? Below, please let us know whether grammar goblins like these give you the heebie-jeebies. And if you’re already a clairvoyant, tell us how you approach the apparitions of if, whether, whether or not, like, as, as if, and as though.