Writing Tips

Grammar and Usage

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Particularly Nasty Whether

When to Use "Whether or Not"

(In case you're wondering, and even if you aren't, the title--with a different spelling--comes from just before the punchline (call it the setup) in a joke a law school friend told me the night before we graduated. We were driving around the countryside west of Gainesville, just the two of us, a six-pack of beer on the seat between us, telling nothing but the punchlines of jokes. If the other one liked the punchline, he would ask to hear the whole joke. I asked to hear this one. The whole evening was his idea. Later, he became a judge.)

 

A while back, I wrote that when we juxtapose the affirmative with the negative—and stick or in the middle—we usually need only the affirmative (See Tip: “On Or About Or”):

 

The success or failure of the IPO depends on many factors.

Most often these unnecessary words are the expression or not following whether. Occasionally, we need or not, or the sentence makes no sense. Below are examples of when we need it, when we delete it, when we move it, and when we replace whether with if.

 

When we need or not:

 

A firmly decisive, top-down system means that projects are built whether or not people in local neighborhoods want them.

 

When we need or not in the phrase regardless of whether or not:

 

You are obligated to pay our fees regardless of whether or not the opposing party is ordered to pay your fees and costs.

 

When we delete or not:

 

The pushup also strengthens your core, and it’s a good indicator of whether or not you’re exercising enough now to avoid fat later.

 

When we move or not next to whether (always):

 

Whether it leads to true romance or not, each of the significant characters in the story is moonstruck.

 

Whether or not it leads to true romance, each of the significant characters in the story is moonstruck.

 

When we move and remove or not:

 

In determining whether the means used are improper or not, the Colorado Supreme Court provided guidance in Amoco Oil with a list of factors:

 

In determining whether or not the means used are improper, the Colorado Supreme Court provided guidance in Amoco Oil with a list of factors:

 

After we remove or not, do we replace whether with if?

 

According to Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage, an obscure editor in 1762 arbitrarily declared that certain “Scotticisms,” like using if instead of whether, were improper. For a hundred years, everyone ignored him, and only a few still follow his “rule.” Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, William Faulkner, and other authors never did follow it. Sometimes if doesn’t make sense when replacing whether, but often it does, and if you prefer it, make the change:

 

Once you help me bring that laser focus to the project, they can decide whether or not if they want to do this.

 

Unabashed, self-serving postscript: At the push of a button, WordRake will make many of these whether or not edits for you; here are a few examples, with additional edits noted:

 

We need to decide whether or not proceeding with this action is in Carbine’s best interest.

The line had stopped moving; even the women who were free to go could go now stopped to watch her, regardless of whether or not they had any idea of knew what she was saying.

There was a big to-do about whether or not he was going to get would get his wish.

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About Gary Kinder

Gary Kinder

WordRake founder Gary Kinder has taught over 1,000 writing programs for AMLAW 100 firms, Fortune 500 companies, and government agencies. He’s also a New York Times bestselling author. As a writing expert and coach, Gary was inspired to create WordRake when he noticed a pattern in writing errors that he thought he could address with technology.

In 2012, Gary and his team of engineers created WordRake editing software to help writers produce clear, concise, and effective prose. It saves time and gives confidence. Writing and editing has never been easier.

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