Whether or not?

My colleague Ton van der Wouden would like to know if whether or not  is a usage problem – or not. He noticed an enormous increase in usage (Google Books) over the last eighty years or so. As far as I know, it is not an issue dealt with in any of the usage guides I’ve seen. Can anyone help him find any literature about it?

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5 Responses to Whether or not?

  1. Adrian says:

    Gilman’s (1989) “Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage” has a column on it.

  2. Paul Nance says:

    Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage covers it, and concludes that it is “perfectly good, idiomatic English.”

  3. As Paul says, a useful discussion in M-W’s dictionary, including some grammatical analysis. I have a hunch, though, that many editors would be tempted to automatically strike out the ‘or not’. Recently, I edited a piece of fiction containing the phrase, and decided to leave it, against my first inclination to cut it. It is, indeed, completely established and idiomatic; the only criticism that can be levelled against it is that it is pleonastic. Interesting to see that it’s on the rise. I wonder why.

  4. Ebbitt and Ebbitt cover it in their Index to English, in which they say that the “or not” is sometimes helpful and sometimes unnecessary. Garner also covers it in his Modern American Usage, and he labels it stage 2: widely shunned.

  5. Thanks for your reactions so far. Greenbaum & Whitcut (Longman Guide to English Usage 1988) opine: “If ‘or not’ can be omitted after WHETHER, it is neater to leave it out”.

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