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Rosie Right

Our language and how it works.

"Numerous commentators have pointed out that or not is not always necessary after whether, as in 'We don't know whether or not they'll come.' They naturally recommend that or not should be omitted whenever possible, on the usual assumption that fewer words make better prose. … however this use of or not is more than 300 years old."

If you don't like or not, Webster's tells you, "The option of omitting 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." The example: "Whether or not one agrees with Vidal's judgments, there are some trenchant formulations."

Theorore Bernstein's "The Careful Writer" tells us that the or not is often a space waster, but it must sometimes be used. He suggests a way to test the need by substituting if for whether. If the substitution produces a different meaning, the not must be included." Example: "The game will be played whether (if?) it is fair." In this case Bernstein says the or not is essential.

Eric Partridge, in "Usage and Abusage," lays down a simple law: "Whether or not is tautological for whether, except where the doubt is to be emphasized."

Whether or not you agree with any of these experts above, here is, alas, another complication of life.

Losing Phrases

Horrors — a new political season is upon us (do these seasons ever stop?). Here from The New York Times are a few of the phrases that 2004 brought: Ghost Detainee, swift boat (as a verb), values voter and Rathergate.

Perhaps we will move on to new ones this year.

Let Rosie hear from you by mail (Style Weekly, 1707 Summit Ave., Richmond, 23230); by e-mail rozanne.epps@styleweekly.com; or by telephone (804-358-0825).

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