Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Whether Or Not, Or Not?

Posted by Neal on April 12, 2005

I was reading the paper Sunday, when my eye tripped over a sentence, and I had to read it again for it to make sense. This is just the kind of thing that writing manuals say that you don’t want your readers to do. Read aloud what you write, they say, so you can make sure there aren’t speed bumps in the text that are going to distract the reader. The offending sentence was in an article about Ohio’s Big Darby Creek, and it went like this:

Whether they live within its watershed, all taxpayers in the state have a stake in this stream.
“A tenuous balance: scenic creek in tug of war between preservation and development.” Spencer Hunt, The Columbus Dispatch, April 10, 2005, C1.

I read Whether they live in its watershed, tripped when I got to all taxpayers, and skidded through the rest of the sentence before stumbling to a stop at the period. Where was the or not? I had been expecting an or not to show me where the whether clause ended, but instead, I’d found myself skating right into the main clause with all taxpayers before I was ready. When I went back, I was prepared. When I got to watershed, I supplied my own or not, and continued smoothly to the end of the sentence, no thanks to the copyeditor.

I know what happened. The copyeditor went by the rule that whether … or not is usually redundant (as in, “I don’t know whether I passed (or not)”), and therefore eliminated the or not. But this whether was introducing an adverbial subordinate clause, making the or not crucial. A quick and dirty test is to substitute if for whether. If the substitution is grammatical and doesn’t change the meaning, you can omit the or not. (Or, I’d say, leave it in anyway, just for emphasis.) Otherwise, it needs to stay. Using that test, we have If they live within its watershed, all taxpayers in the state have a stake in this stream–definitely a different meaning from the original.

I judge this to be another case of someone overruling their language instincts in favor of a rule that didn’t really apply to the situation at hand. And in so doing, they disregarded the overarching rule of making the writing clear.

5 Responses to “Whether Or Not, Or Not?”

  1. Estel said

    It can’t quite be the case that or not is needed to indicate the end of the whether clause, because the sentence is good either with or not at the end of the clause or with it immediately following whether:

    At the end of the clause:
    Whether they live within its watershed or not, all taxpayers in the state have a stake in this stream.

    Immediately after whether:
    Whether or not they live within its watershed, all taxpayers in the state have a stake in this stream.

  2. Neal said

    True, the or not can come earlier. But when it didn’t, I expected it at the end of the clause.

  3. […] Darn it! I thought. The stupid copyeditors have done it again! I went back to the beginning of the sentence, and this time parsed the whether clause as an adverbial clause, mentally restoring the or not that I knew must have been there originally. I put it after intention, but it could just as easily have come right after the whether. As it happens, though, my guess was right: Check out the second to last paragraph of the plaintext version of the article on Dyer’s website. […]

  4. Maybe it is tolerable in colloquial, spoken speech, but I find it dead wrong.

  5. The Ridger said

    I’m not sure what Roberto finds “dead wrong”: what is the antecedent to “it”?

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