Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

More Bad Whether

Posted by Neal on August 22, 2006

At the beginning of the month, I read a column by Gwynne Dyer on the Israel-Hezbollah war. Near the end, he wrote:

[Hezbollah] may have foreseen the likelihood of a massive Israeli overreaction, and calculated that it could ride it out and win from it.

Nothing grammatically weird there. But the next paragraph began like this:

Whether that was its intention, it probably will ride it out and win.

I read Whether that was its intention, parsed it as an indirect question, and got ready to read something that called for an indirect question, such as …doesn’t matter, or …is anyone’s guess or …is something reasonable people can disagree on. Instead, of course, what I got was an entire clause with no open slot for an indirect question anywhere in it, and my parse crashed.

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.

I agree that or not is redundant in sentences such as Do you know whether or not Sam is coming? Not as egregious as free gift or pre-plan, but I’ll still grant the point. But when you’re using whether to introduce the idea that some proposition is true regardless of which of several possibilities is (or becomes) true, it doesn’t make sense if you then mention only one possibility. Why, even James J. Kilpatrick agrees on this one!

There’s never any confusion if the possibilities are different enough that they are each spelled out, as in Whether you choose to do it or someone forces you to, or Whether it rains or shines, or Whether you opt for monthly payments or one lump sum. Only when one of the possibilities is the negation of the other do copyeditors suddenly confuse adverbial-clause whether with indirect-question whether. At least, those at the Columbus Dispatch do. I’ll bet Bill Walsh doesn’t.

2 Responses to “More Bad Whether

  1. Bob said

    “Whether or not” can often be replaced bu using “even if” and casting the sentence in the negative, which (to my ear, at least) both sounds better and is clearer. “I will go to the party whether or not Joe is there” vs. “I will go to the party even if Joe is not there.”

  2. The Ridger said

    But “even if Joe is not there” states a clear preference for his presence; “whether Joe is there or not” is indifferent to it.

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