91.7 Ann Arbor/Detroit 104.1 Grand Rapids 91.3 Port Huron 89.7 Lansing 91.1 Flint
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

TWTS: Whether "or not" belongs in "whether or not" or not

Ways To Subscribe

English is filled with redundancy, and redundancy is just one of the many quirks that characterize our language. It also finds its way into our inbox, with questions about whether or not this linguistic trait should be embraced, including inquiries about "whether or not."

The first "whether or not" in the preceding sentence was deliberate on our part and admittedly cheeky. It should be noted though that we are neither condemning nor endorsing its use. Using "whether or not" is, for the most part, a style choice, and that was the style we chose.

By this point, some of you may be wondering why anyone would consider "whether or not" to be redundant at all. Our listener Leland Babitch recently wrote to us about an English teacher he had in high school, who explained it this way:

"My English teacher in 11th grade taught us that the word 'whether' includes 'or not,' so saying 'whether or not' is redundant," Babitch said. "Is that true, and should people (including many reporters on NPR) refrain from saying 'whether or not?'"

While it's true that "or not" can often be omitted, it's also true that redundancy isn't incorrect. There's an argument to be made that including "or not" can be rhetorically effective if you're trying to emphasize a choice. For example, if you want to tell someone whether or not you're going somewhere, that emphasis can be helpful. You might be going, or you might not be going -- both are possibilities.

Historically speaking, there are actually two phrases in play here, "whether or no" and "whether or not." The first written evidence of "whether or no" appears in the mid-1500s, with "whether or not" coming in a little later.

These phrases generally meant the same thing. However, sometimes "whether or no" could be used as an adverb phrase meaning "in any case." Here's an example from The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens: "Was it natural that at that instant, without any previous impulse or design, Kit should kiss Barbara? He did it, whether or no."

So, should we use "whether or not" or not? As we said, it's mostly about style. Some people omit "or not" for the sake of concision, while some keep it for emphasis. There is, however, one construction in which "or not" cannot be omitted. To hear about that, listen to the audio above.

Stay Connected
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.