An American Editor

April 10, 2013

On Language: Whether or Whether or Not

I was reading a political opinion piece by Kathleen Parker (“Time is Right for Hillary Clinton to Run for President”, March 31, 2013) in which she wrote: “Whether to run again for the highest office is surely on Clinton’s mind.” This sentence got me thinking: Does whether require or not?

The roots of whether are as a substitute for which of two, which is likely what led to the construction whether or not. The ultimate question is can the bare whether stand on its own.

It is pretty clear that current authorities generally agree that or not is superfluous because it is implied but that there are instances when or not is required. In other words, as is true of so much else with English, the answer to the question, “Does whether require or not?”, is maybe, perhaps, depends, sometimes, or any other similar response that makes it clear there is no firm, immutable answer.

Consider this example from the “After Deadline” column Whether (or Not) by Philip B. Corbett (March 1, 2010, New York Times):

Whether [or not] they are professional writers, many people are confused about whether [or not] they should use the phrase “or not” after “whether.”

As the example suggests the answer differs within the same sentence. In the first instance, the or not is required, whereas it is not required in the second instance. Garner’s Modern American Usage (2009, pp. 857-858) makes the same “usually” argument.

The answer to when or not is necessary seems to depend on the meaning of whether. Garner asserts it is necessary when whether or not means regardless of whether, as in “the wedding will occur whether or not the best man is present.” But with the sentence, “Whether to allow Eastwood to speak makes little difference,” the or not is sufficiently implied that it need not be stated. The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed., p. 299) adheres to Garner’s view.

The rationale that or not is implied seems to me to beg the unasked question: Is it wrong to include or not whenever whether is used? The rationale for omitting or not is economy of phrase; implication is sufficient. But which is more certain? The implied or the stated? And is economy of phrase the ultimate goal?

Great craftsmanship is often accomplished by an economy of effort. We often say that minimal editing is better than overediting, but that begs the question of just how much editing is really required. The real answer is not economy of effort but making the effort required to produce the masterpiece.

Similarly, because whether may be able to live without or not does not mean that it should or that it is wrong to let the couple live happily together. This is a conundrum that an editor faces: When is implication sufficient? When should explicitness dominate? Should an author leave it to a reader to imply (i.e., supply the reader’s conclusion) or should the author spell it out (i.e., supply the author’s conclusion)?

In the end, in the case of whether and or not, the coupling of the words may be more dependent on whether (or not) the reader could go astray in the absence of or not. Is there really an alternative that the reader can draw that leads away from the ultimate conclusion that the author wants drawn?

In Kathleen Parker’s sentence, “Whether to run again for the highest office is surely on Clinton’s mind,” I do not see where the addition of or not would avert a reader going astray. What alternative path could a reader go down? In this instance, or not is superfluous, yet had the sentence been written “Whether or not to run again for the highest office is surely on Clinton’s mind,” I would not have pounced and edited out the or not. The addition is superfluous and harmless. It could even be argued that it provides clarity.

Consider this sentence: “Whether I agree with the political agenda, some decisions need to be made.” The careful reader will read the sentence as “Whether or not I agree with the political agenda, some decisions need to be made.” The commentators who follow Garner’s arguments would say that the or not is required here because the sentence is really a regardless construct; that is, “Regardless of whether I agree with the political agenda, some decisions need to be made.” Yet if the conclusion to be drawn does not alter regardless of the explicit presence of or not, why doesn’t the economy of phrase argument continue to hold sway?

In the end, I find that I am reluctant to change an author’s choice to use whether or not even if omitting the or not would be proper under the Garner-Chicago view. It is true that verbosity is not usually a virtue, but the difference between more verbose and less verbose in the case of whether versus whether or not is an insignificant difference. I am more inclined toward the view of Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage: “It [whether or not] is, in short, perfectly good, idiomatic English” (1994, p. 956). If whether or not is “perfectly good, idiomatic English” and the author has chosen to use it, why should I change it?

What do you think?


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