Dot Wordsworth

Mind Your Language | 28 May 2005

A Lexicographer writes

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An unquiet correspondent sends a ‘breath of rage’ all the way from Burrum Heads, Queensland. ‘I do wish you could manage to educate some of your fellow columnists,’ barks Mr Geoff Baker, adding a few paragraphs about ‘ignorance’, ‘solecisms, ‘disappointment’, ‘Bad English’, ‘after-hours adult education’.

Goodness! What have we done? Why, we’ve used ‘or not’ after ‘whether’. Mr Barker’s gripe is that this introduces a culpable redundancy. That, however, is not the way the community of English-speakers has seen it over the past few hundred years.

Whether had a busy private life even before it was written down in the Vespasian Psalter in ad 825, the earliest citation known, unless someone has found an earlier. The function that interests Mr Baker is as a conjunction. Since the days of Alfred the Great it has introduced a disjunctive dependent question or its equivalent. Langland, who used the form where for whether, happily employed the construction ‘where he be sauf or nought’. Shakespeare, also reckoned to be a capable author, writes, in the fifth act of The Tempest: ‘Whether this be, Or be not, I’le not sweare.’ And St Thomas More writes: ‘There was principally in question whether worshipping of images were lawful or not.’

John Morley, Gladstone’s biographer, if not to my mind a wholly suitable one, marshalled a neat subjunctive in 1872: ‘More than two generations had almost ceased to care whether there be any moral order or not.’ By suppression of the second alternative, whether comes to introduce a simple dependent question: ‘whether he was at home’, ‘whether there was any news’. This usage is the darling and apple of Mr Baker’s eye.

But the possibility remains of repeating the whether in the second half of a disjunctive clause. (‘Whether it is fair, or whether it is wet.’) Or, to the contrary, there may be ellipsis of the verb in both parts (‘whether Liberal or Tory’).

A construction that does seem to have changed in the past 80 years (since the ‘W’ part of the OED was compiled) is the use of ‘whether or no’ as an introductory phrase for a dependent interrogatory clause. (‘Whether or no they are real Husbands,’ as Addison wrote in the old Spectator in 1711.) It seems to professional philologists, as it seems to me, that the present-day preference is for ‘whether or not’. I can’t help what Mr Baker was taught at school. Those notionally redundant words remain good English, whether he likes it or not.