Advanced Business Writing
Rules and Usage

While/Whether

While

For centuries, the word while has primarily been associated with the temporal:

while = "at the same time as" (coincide)

During those same centuries, however, other senses of the word while were in widespread use:

while = "although" (concede)

while = "whereas" (contrast)

But why use while in a sentence when although or whereas would suffice? Because sometimes the word while sounds better in that particular sentence. Obviously, this is more an art than a science.

Consider an example where a substitution is sometimes warranted:

It was an enjoyable evening of musical performances. The chorus sang an operetta while the orchestra played a concerto.

These two musical performances were unlikely to have coincided in time. That would have been strange. However, if you know your audience is made up of sophisticated music lovers, the use of the word while is both understood and considered an elegant way to talk.

But if you are writing to a wider audience, it makes sense to reduce ambiguity by substituting a different word:

It was an enjoyable evening of music. The chorus sang an operetta whereas the orchestra played a concerto.

Some people might say the use of the word whereas makes it sound like there was a competition. To avoid such a connotation, you can use a basic conjunction:

It was an enjoyable evening of music. The chorus sang an operetta, and the orchestra played a concerto.

A particular misuse of the word while is common:

The chorus sang for awhile.
[wrong]

The chorus sang for a while.
[correct]

The chorus sang awhile.
[correct, but perhaps a bit awkward]

The chorus rested awhile as the orchestra played.
[correct]

While is a noun. For a while is an adverb, as is its equivalent, awhile.

awhile = for a while

If you write awhile just be sure the substitution of for a while does not sound odd or change what you wanted to say.

Sometimes the word while should be stricken:

It is worth while saying that the music was divine.
[not so good]

Here the word while is considered an error in grammar.

It is worth saying that the music was divine.
[correct]

This brings up the question: what is the difference between worth while, worth-while, and worthwhile? The complicated answer is that they all essentially mean the same thing but are sometimes spelled differently depending on how they are used.

It was a worth-while rehearsal.
[okay]

It was a worthwhile rehearsal.
[okay]

The rehearsal was worth while.
[okay]

The rehearsal was worthwhile.
[bad, according to some]

Good luck with that.

Whether

Consider the three sentences:

She wanted to know if Dudamel would conduct on Friday.

She wanted to know whether Dudamel would conduct on Friday.

She wanted to know whether or not Dudamel would conduct on Friday.

There is no significant difference between these sentences. Dudamel may or may not conduct on Friday.

Now consider two more sentences:

He wanted to know whether Dudamel would conduct on Friday or Saturday.

He wanted to know if Dudamel would conduct on Friday or Saturday.

The sentence that uses whether implies there are two possibilities: (1) Dudamel will conduct on Friday. (2) Dudamel will conduct on Saturday.

The sentence that uses if implies there are three possibilities: (1) Dudamel will conduct on Friday. (2) Dudamel will conduct on Saturday. (3) Dudamel will not conduct on either day.

If you need a memory aid, maybe these could help:

whether is for choosing: X or Y

if is for concluding: yes or no

Don't be afraid to use the word whether twice in a sentence. It can provide clarity:

I cannot remember whether they played the horn concerto by Mozart, K.412, or whether they played the tragic symphony by Schubert, D.417.

It can also provide emphasis:

We must respect the conductor's decision whether he says yes, or whether he says no.

Finally, avoid stacking alternatives:

I don't care whether or not tonight's performance will or will not include a concerto.
[not good]

Most readers find that annoying.

Lesson: While/Whether
Module: Rules and Usage
Course: Advanced Business Writing