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If or not

Both “if” and “whether” can introduce a subordinate clause: “I was wondering if you would come” and “I was wondering whether you would come”. However, the phrase “whether or not”, as in “I was wondering whether or not you would come” is okay, but “if or not” in the same context seems not okay - google searches bring up 100 million hits for the first phrase, but just 15,000 for the second. This came up in a class I was in, and I was surprised because I do use “if or not” in informal speech; why are these two phrases different? In both cases the “or not” is redundant, if you think about it.

  • January 7, 2006
  • Posted by brian
  • Filed in Grammar

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Among other things, it should be noted that "whether" can help avoid a common ambiguity created by "if". The example "we'll see if she comes" could mean "if she comes, we'll see" as easily as "we'll see whether she comes."

Secondly, yes, there is an inherent redundancy in the phrase "whether or not," though one could argue that it emphasizes that the options are binary rather than open ended (consider "we'll see whether she comes at 3:15, 3:30, or later"), which seems a little clearer when the other option is written out, as in "we'll see whether she wins or loses," though because of the ambiguity I would be inclined to write it with "if" ("we'll see if she wins or loses") or to use something additional to make it clear, as in "what we'll soon find out is whether she wins or loses." All of this aside, the fact that it's a common set phrase makes the redundancy quite irrelevant, in my mind. Set phrases don't really need justification, for the most part. Note that it is not redundant to use "or not" to indicate that the result is the same regardless of which scenario is correct: "Whether or not it rains, I'm going to work."

On the other hand, "if or not" is by no means a common set phrase, so anytime someone uses it, they are either being stylized/sloppy or they have some special intention (e.g., to emphasize the binary nature of the options). Note that it can be used to clear up the ambiguity I mentioned earlier "we'll see if she comes or not" is hardly likely to be misunderstood, though interestingly enough the same ambiguity is reintroduced when one then switches the "if" to "whether": "we'll see whether or not she comes" could mean "whether or not she comes, we'll see" or "we'll see whether she comes".

So there you have it. One of the reasons that the two phrases are different is because "whether" has the additional meaning of "regardless of whether" and "if" has the additional meaning of "should it happen that," both of which can introduce ambiguities into a sentence at various points. Putting aside the fact that "whether or not" is a set phrase, you can best determine whether the "or not" in "whether or not" or "if or not" is contributing anything to the sentence by fully writing out the scenario that that "or not" represents and seeing if it still seems useful.

Anonymous January 8, 2006, 1:53pm

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If the phrase is really "if or not", it's indeed *very* idiosynchratic. But maybe you mean "if...or not", with the clause in place of the elipses:

"We'll see if she'll come or not."

While not correct in a formal context, I think this use is pretty common.

Avrom January 16, 2006, 3:19pm

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The reason, by the way, that it's not strictly correct is this:

"Whether" can be used to introduce two possible alternatives; "if" is strictly speaking only used to introduce a single possibility.

"We'll see whether she likes eggs or ham" can mean "Perhaps she likes eggs; perhaps instead she likes ham; we'll see which."

"We'll see if she likes eggs or ham" can really only mean "Perhaps she likes at least one of eggs and ham; perhaps she likes neither; we'll see which." (That is, the "eggs" and "ham" are not two separate possibilities governed by the "if".)

Avrom January 16, 2006, 3:24pm

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I believe "or not" is redundant.

You can consider this: "That may or may not occur".

The "may" implies that the subject may not happen; therefore, "... may or may not..." is essentially saying, "... may or may not or may not occur". There's the redundancy.

Correct me if I'm wrong. I'm only 18, lol.

isabella March 1, 2006, 2:31pm

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I think you're right that the "or may not" adds nothing to the *content* of the sentence, and so is redundant.

But I don't think it's redundant in a *bad* sense, because it *does* change the *force* of the sentence.

"That may happen," spoken in response to a prediction, suggests that the speaker thinks it's reasonably likely to happen.

"That may or may not happen," by giving "may not" equal weight, suggests that the speaker thinks that the prediction is a shot in the dark.

"That may not happen" suggests that the speaker thinks the prediction is actively unlikely.

This is sometimes called the semantic/pragmatic distinction--all three sentences *mean* the same thing, in the sense that each logically implies the others, but you still accomplish something different with each of them.

Avrom March 2, 2006, 9:20am

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The issue of ambiguity is not entirely warranted. When speaking, people usually measure their metre to indicate the meaning they intend, and punctuation serves this purpose in writing.

ajmcpher April 1, 2006, 10:43am

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The two phrases are not different. The simple answer is that "whether or not" is technically incorrect. It has become so commonly used that it is now standard, but "whether" means "if or not". The phrase "whether or not" means "if or not or not". It is tautology.

"I don't know whether it's raining" is correct

("If" should really only be used to present a condition. "I don't know if it's raining" is technically incorrect, because no condition is present.)

"Whether or not it's raining, I will have a picnic" should be "Regardless of whether it's raining..."

hotmaledotcomat December 5, 2006, 7:51pm

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i´m learning too mucho ´:)

edith_r_quena December 21, 2006, 7:50am

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From Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionar of English Usage:

"...will you go and see it and tell me whether they murder it or not" - GB Shaw, letter, 28 Nov 1895

"...never knew whether or not to insert the names of his parents" - John Updike, Couples, 1968

The option of mitting "or not" only exists when the clause introduced by "whether" serves as the subject of the sentence or as the object of a preposition or verb. When the clause has an adverbial function, "or not" must be retained:

"Whether or not one agrees with Vidal's judgments, there are some trenchant formulations" Simon 1980

goofy December 23, 2006, 8:36am

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Yes     No