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Consider the sentence, "Whether or not they will go back online is uncertain."

If "whether or not" is removed from this sentence, leaving only "they will go back online is uncertain," is it still grammatically correct?

Hope to hear from you soon.

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  • Que? This is what the question was? Before it got edited, I thought the question was something entirely more plausible. Of course They will go back online is uncertain. is not a grammatically valid sentence. This would be valid: "They will go back online" is uncertain. Everything within the quotes would be taken, e.g., as the title of a plan (The plan is uncertain).
    – Talia Ford
    Commented Sep 23, 2013 at 5:55
  • If you're going to allow quotes as valid parts of examples, it becomes pointless talking about grammaticality. You could write down the most inane gibberish, quote it exactly in a grammatically correct matrix, and claim that the whole is also grammatically correct. This is disingenuous. Commented Sep 23, 2013 at 6:28
  • That's the only way that sequence of words can be considered a complete sentence.
    – Talia Ford
    Commented Sep 23, 2013 at 6:57
  • But putting the string in quotes changes the sentence fundamentally. OP does not have the inverted commas you invent. Changing the punctuation of a string may change the way the string has to be analysed (eg 'We're eating, Tim' v 'We're eating Tim'), and the changing of OP's sentence by the addition of meaning-changing punctuation is off topic. Commented Sep 23, 2013 at 7:03
  • I see it this way. That one would actually have to change the meaning of the string (which completely unexpectedly, for me at least, appeared after the mod's intervention), goes to show just how egregiously ungrammatical that newly-appeared string was. By playing with those quotes, I wasn't really advising the user anymore how to change his S (I had alrady done that); I was just intending to demonstrate just how huge a difference that op edit made. It's more of a meta comment than anything else. As such, it is offtopic. If that'd been my real advice, that would've been preposterous. Agreed.
    – Talia Ford
    Commented Sep 23, 2013 at 7:50

4 Answers 4

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They will go back online is a finite clause. We can tell this because if we rewrite your sentence without the modal will and in the third person singular, the main verb go inflects to goes:

 1. Whether or not he goes back online is uncertain.

And by itself, they will go back online would be a main clause, forming a complete sentence with a subject and predicate:

 2. They will go back online.

However, your sentence introduces this clause with the subordinator whether [or not]. This naturally turns the clause from a main clause into a subordinate clause, so the following sentence is incomplete:

 3. *Whether or not they will go back online.

A subordinate clause can't stand alone. In other words, it should be embedded in another clause, called a matrix clause. In your sentence, it functions as a complement (in this case, the subject) of copular auxiliary be in an ascriptive construction:

 4. [ Whether or not they will go back online ] is uncertain.

But if we remove the subordinator, the embedded clause can no longer be embedded:

 5. * [ They will go back online ] is uncertain.

Why? Let's compare to that. When a subordinate clause is an object rather than a subject, other subordinators (such as that) are omissible:

 6a. I know [ that you're reading this. ]
 6b. I know [ you're reading this. ]

But whether is not because it marks the clause as interrogative:

 7a. I know [ whether they will go back online. ]
 #7b. I know [ they will go back online. ]

(Example 7b is grammatical but doesn't have the intended meaning.)

But even if it wasn't necessary to mark the clause as interrogative, we still couldn't omit it. When the subordinate clause is external to the verb phrase (as it is when it's the subject), we need the subordinator to let us know that we're not reading a main clause, so the subordinator is not omissible:

 8a. [ That you're reading this ] is certain.
 8b. * [ You're reading this ] is certain.

So whether [or not] in your sentence can't be omitted because it's necessary for the embedded clause to function as a subject, and also because it's necessary to mark the clause as interrogative.

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  • I accidentally deleted the wrong comment I wrote a minute ago. I basically really praised your answer, but begged you for more. What of the inversion? Would you be willing to address it? Note this: in Exactly WHY he would do that totally beats me no inversion occurs, but if we load that complementizer heavy, e.g. with "how, where and why" or "why or why not" - inversion naturally occurs: Exactly HOW WHEN AND WHY would he do that totally beats me. Same with WHETHER OR NOT will they go back online is uncertain. If we remove OR NOT, we get: WHETHER they will go back online is uncertain.
    – Talia Ford
    Commented Sep 23, 2013 at 17:43
  • I don't get the 'inversion naturally occurs" I'd say: Exactly how when and why he would do that totally beats me. The inversion sounds wrong.
    – Jim
    Commented Sep 24, 2013 at 4:41
  • They are both grammatically valid. However, the inverted version occurs naturally, because in your version, "how when and why he," you would have to either make a pause between the last complementizer (why) and the adjacent content word (he)[nothing wrog with a pause,but it does add drama,which adds its connotation!], or utter a silly sequence of as much as 5 (!) stressed words (enclitics don't count as separate words soundwise): eXACTly-HOW-WHENund-WHY-HEwad.Sounds hellamonotone.And silly,like a hip-hop track.Why only 5,why'd I stop at he? Cos its the whole subject.After subject comes drop.
    – Talia Ford
    Commented Sep 24, 2013 at 6:04
  • Here's one sentence off the first Google results page: "The real question now revolves around whether or not will it exceed the 15B mark which will then create some significant tremors in the markets." If you don't invert, you are absolutely forced to make a pause in "not it". In the op sentence there's less impetus to invert than in this Google one, but my version is still more natural than yours. I don't have a good proof for that though, so far.
    – Talia Ford
    Commented Sep 24, 2013 at 6:25
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First, I'd remove or not as redundant: Whether they will go back online is uncertain.

Second, with the whether [or not] removed, the sentence should be rephrased a bit to retain grammatical correctness: Their going back online is uncertain.

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To answer simply, no, it is not grammatically correct. You have formed a syntactical (grammatical) structure that does not work.

Look carefully at the original sentence. The grammar is not as important as the sense. Think about what is uncertain. The uncertainty is the matter of if (whether or not) the action will happen. (The action in this case is going back online.) If you take out the question of if (whether or not), then you do not have an uncertain situation to refer to. All you are left with is this simple statement: "they will go back online." You wind up trying to say "it is uncertain" when you are referring to something that is certain: "they will go back online."

You see, in English, this simple declarative statement, "they will go back online," cannot be changed to be uncertain just by saying it is uncertain. It also requires a conjunction, such as whether, to link the claim of uncertainty to the declarative statement and add the element of uncertainty. So if you take out the whether or not part, then the sentence just makes no sense.

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    I'd say, only the structure is important with any copulative sentence whose subject is a complete independent clause. I can't say "[X does Y] is [Z]". I would have to convert the independent clause into a dependent one, say, by starting it off with "that": [That X does Y] is [Z]. The meaning of X, Y and Z, and of the verb too, is irrelevant.
    – Talia Ford
    Commented Sep 23, 2013 at 6:17
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It's possible to start a sentence with such a heavy construction, but for this one, you need to do an inversion:

Whether or not will they go back online is uncertain.

It's not too easy on the eyes, but it's easy on the ears. The inversion saves the day because of prosody (the way some words in a sentence receive the stress, and some don't). Will is a clitic (there are proclitics and enclitics), and in this position becomes enclitic, i.e., it gets glued to not, so we end up with something like "notwol". The sentence then sounds almost like there was no will in the first place, and can be read without those significant pauses that can change a sentence's meaning:

Whether or not they go back online is uncertain.
Whether or notwol they go back online is uncertain.

In the case of keeping the original word order, only this part of the sentence could be parsed:

Whether or not they will go back online.

The rest would get thrown into oblivion. As an elided sentence, this would totally work, but only, having acquired a different meaning. Take note of its properly punctuated version:

Whether or not, they will go back online.

But there, whether or not would refer to some anterior, unknown sentence. Plus, they would definitely go back online. :)

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    Sorry, but whether or not you think that inversion is easy on the ears, I definitely think it hurts mine terribly. I might go so far as to say it's just wrong.
    – Jim
    Commented Sep 23, 2013 at 6:24
  • We actually both agree about eyes. When I said not easy on the eyes, I meant ugly, but chains of letters are all alike, so what I meant by ugly is "hard to comprehend" (if reading, not if listening); thus, eyes = brain. When you say eyes, you too actully mean brain. However, when I said ears, I meant, that part of brain that deals with phonology, with sound. Now, as far as grammatic validity goes, we indeed do disagree.
    – Talia Ford
    Commented Sep 23, 2013 at 6:31
  • You'll have to explain it to me- having the will in there makes no sense to me- I just can't parse it any way I try. And to me eyes means "when I read it" and ears means "when I hear it spoken" and neither of them work for me because it's ungrammatical.
    – Jim
    Commented Sep 23, 2013 at 6:38
  • Are you trying to say it's the same construction as: Never again will we eat at McDonald's.
    – Jim
    Commented Sep 23, 2013 at 6:42
  • What I said is that inversion does occur. I also said it sounds better inverted, because of prosody, which phonology covers. I said nothing of the type of construction. I hadn't studied this really, and I didn't know whether prosody was the cause or an effect. But having started to read this today, I realize phonology is seen within the academy as one hypothesis, though there are others.
    – Talia Ford
    Commented Sep 23, 2013 at 18:09

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