whether

The life of the language maven can be weathering, even withering. When someone asks whether this or that is acceptable, should you be a weathercock, turning with the times? Or a weatherman, predicting the future? Or a bellwether, leading the flock?

Over the weekend, I got the following as a comment from Paula Tohline Calhoun on my tasting of however:

I have a question for you. I have been instructed on more than one occasion that the use of the word “whether” should never be accompanied with “or not.” The reason is that it would be redundant, because the “or not” is implied in the word “whether.” Is this a general rule, and are there exceptions, such as the phrase you used in the article above, “Most of those who had been writing were no longer certain whether to write or not.”

My short answer was as follows:

If your goal in writing is always to use as few words as possible, the “or not” is not necessary. However, the minimal use of words is not always the most important goal in writing, and sometimes it’s actually counterproductive. Restatements and emphasis of what is already implied are sometimes quite useful for the flow of the text. Using more words than the most economical phrasing possible is not an error or a grammatical fault, although it can be a flaw – but using too few words can also be a flaw if it makes the prose too choppy or abrupt, or too severe in tone, or insufficiently evocative.

But wait, there’s more. Consider the following quotations (all provided handily by the Oxford English Dictionary):

Whether this be, Or be not, I’le not sweare. —The Tempest, William Shakespeare

Thou shalt remaine here, whether thou wilt or no. —A Midsummer Night’s Dream, William Shakespeare

I am exceedingly interested in the question of whether this attempt of mine will succeed or no. —Letters, Percy Bysshe Shelley

What matters whether or no I make my way in life. —Henry Esmond, William Makepeace Thackeray

And then consider these:

whether we live therefore or die, we are the Lord’s —Bible, King James Version

For Loyalty is still the same, Whether it win or lose the Game. —Hudibras, Samuel Butler

I knew he would act a good part whether he rose or fell. —Vicar of Wakefield, Oliver Goldsmith

That Reason which remains always one and the same, whether it speaks through this or that person. —The Friend, Samuel Taylor Coleridge

It implies alternatives, but sometimes the choice is not between opposites but just between a field that has been limited to two: “I’m not sure whether to get the green ones or the red ones.” “It will upset him, but I don’t know whether it will make him angry or sad.” “I really don’t care whether we have steak or fish for dinner, as long as it’s not chicken.” So whether doesn’t always imply a simple yes-or-no choice.

We’ve had the word since forever, of course. And for a long time, one of its available uses was as a pronoun, like which or whichever: “Whether do you want, this or that?” “Whether of the two will it be?” “I don’t care whether of them you choose.” “Pour it into a mug or a cup, whether you have.” It was also sometimes an interrogative particle that would seem superfluous to us now: “Whether does it work better this way or that?” “Whether is it necessary?” But these usages didn’t survive quite to our times, though some lasted into the 1800s. What we have kept is the conjunction that signals a choice between two things. Sometimes those things are both named, and sometimes only one is named and the other is by implication the opposite or the absence of the one.

So we can see that the practice of including the or not with the whether is time honoured and draws on usages where both options must be named. The issue remaining is whether it’s bad to include the or not, and if not, why not. As I have said, it’s not an error. Superfluity often makes for poor writing, but it is not ungrammatical; indeed, sometimes it is a good idea. Consider this well-known passage spoken by Winston Churchill:

We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender

You could certainly tidy that up to this:

We shall fight hard everywhere to defend England without surrendering.

I just don’t think you should, and I will fight you on the pages and on the websites, on Twitter and on Facebook if you do. While I do not wish to foster bombast and prolixity, I do think we should resist at all costs a totalitarian regime of textual concision. Sometimes your text demands that you put in those extra words, whether you think you should.

Or not.

12 responses to “whether

  1. I gotta say, I do appreciate your page and posts so much. I’m an English major and your blog is just beyond helpful for me and my vocabulary.Thank you!🙂

  2. Loved the write up. Whether or not others needed it; I surely needed to read this one.

  3. I’ve heard this anti-“or not” argument and others like it all too often. People like rules — simple formulas — they can follow and feel like they’re writing well. But writing isn’t math. Grammar and usage rules can take you only so far. Beyond that, the writer has to make conscious choices. It’s those personal choices, not the formulaic ones, that make writing good.

  4. Words are the original spells and it’s the writer’s job to cast them.

  5. Loved that you tackle this subject! With no whethers!
    I just want to say that only recently have I found out about your blog and it is my current obsession.

  6. Your passion for the English language is so evident! What are your thoughts of Olde English, like Canterbury tales-era?❤ Just wondering!🙂

  7. Illness kept me away from writing for my blog and reading other blogs, so I missed this fabulous reply from you, which allayed my fears of being accused of being too wordy. I have had to learn, for poetry’s sake, the art of brevity, but using it wisely is equally important to the work as simply cutting everything “unnecessary.” Poetry is not an art of the necessary anyway, but the art of employing language artfully and judiciously, whether brief OR NOT! Thanks again, and sorry for the delayed response,

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