3

(1) *I'm buying it whether I can afford it.

(2) I'm buying it whether I can afford it or not.

(3) I'm buying it whether I can afford it, or whether I have to take out a loan.

I think (1) doesn't work, because it doesn't contain an or-coordination, as in (2), which works fine.

How about (3)?

Can the or-coordination reside outside the whether-clause, as in (3)?

EDIT

I wouldn't use (3) myself; I would say (4) instead:

(4) I'm buying it whether I can afford it or (I) have to take out a loan.

(This doesn't mean that I don't think (3) works. All it means is that I'm not too familiar with constructions like (3), if it does work.)

But I've seen constructions similar to (3). So I'd like to know whether constructions like (3) are well formed.

Research I've done

I've looked up a few grammar books including CGEL by Pullum, but to no avail.

EDIT

Specifically, I'd like to know how common constructions like (3) are compared to its counterpart like (4), and whether the former is a well-formed alternant of the latter simply when the whether-clause is too long and/or complicated to be written in a single clause.

Further clarification and an attested example

The question is not about the general use of 'whether', but only about the use of 'whether' in an exhaustive conditional construction where the whether-clause is functioning as an adjunct of the matrix clause.

At the time of this writing, I've received two answers, both of which claim that (3) doesn't work. But I've just found an example similar to (3):

(5) And I want to assure you that this President is going to continue to work with members of Congress, like Congressman Andy Harris, to make sure that you have the resources and the support that you need to accomplish your mission — whether that be saving people from human trafficking, whether it be sparing families the scourge of narcotics, drug abuse, addiction, and overdose, or whether it be stopping the violence of MS-13 and other gangs that are flowing into our country.

This is from "Remarks by Vice President Pence in Meeting with ICE Baltimore Field Office Leadership".

The difference between (3) and (5) is that (5) has a more complex construction of 'whether A, whether B, or whether C', and that the verb be in (5) is in the present subjunctive form.

Hopefully final edit

In response to the claim that the whether-clauses in (5) are not mutually exclusive, here's another example from "Remarks by Vice President Pence in Press Gaggle":

(5') So, we’ll — all these steps are designed to demonstrate this is a President who embraces his role as leader of the free world. But with regard to Venezuela — whether it be Russia or whether it be Iran — the President’s message is very clear: Russia and Iran have no business in Venezuela. They should step aside and allow the people of Venezuela to restore their democracy and their freedom.

I'm sure 'it being Russia' and 'it being Iran' are mutually exclusive.

  • Please tell me why you think this question needs to be closed so I can improve it. – JK2 Jun 6 at 20:27
  • One is for lack of research, so you might want to show you checked something like a usage guide or some sort of textbook.or maybe just a regular dictionary for information regarding the word whether, even if it is fruitless. The other is generalized proofreading, and I do not know what you could do about that. – Tonepoet Jun 8 at 3:51
  • 1
    Part of it is because they'd rather not have to check and see, and in part because they think it's the least you could do before asking dozens of others to help. You can read How Much Research Is Needed for the most recent consensus. It's our most popular closure reason, and 60% of the questions get closed at some point. I think the reason more questions aren't closed is because there are too many, and voting is discretionary anyway. Personally, I don't think this is an easily answered question, so you've got no complaint from me. – Tonepoet Jun 8 at 4:09
  • 2
    @Tonepoet I'm sure those who close-voted this question don't even have access to some of the grammar books that I have access to. And those people are not here to help, but here to find fault. Or they don't even know if this question is not even covered by most comprehensive grammars such as CGEL. – JK2 Jun 8 at 4:19
  • 1
    Fowler's Modern English Usage p696 has an example of the repetition of whether in a sentence where whether means if. He says: "Whether is often repeated as a clearer pointer than a bare or to an alternative that forms a separate sentence." Perhaps the repetition in your sentence, where whether means regardless of whether, can similarly be regarded as giving the second clause greater prominence than if it were connected to the first clause by 'or' alone. – Shoe Jun 11 at 11:56
1
+50

The repetition of whether in interrogative content clauses (where whether could be replaced by if) is unnecessary but grammatical. Fowler's Modern English Usage (p696) has an example:

  • I cannot remember whether they were lowered into the street or whether there was a window opening out at the back.

Fowler states:

"Whether is often repeated as a clearer pointer than a bare or to an alternative that forms a separate sentence."

However, in the sentence I'm buying it whether I can afford it, or whether I have to take out a loan we are dealing with what A Comprehensive Grammar Of The English Language (p1100) calls concessive conditional clauses, not interrogative content clauses. And the whether means regardless of whether or no matter whether, not if.

But in its explanation and exemplification of concessive conditional clauses the CaGEL explicitly refers back to an example similar to Fowler's in its discussion of interrogative clauses:

  • I can't find out whether the flight has been delayed or whether it has been canceled.

This is the passage in question:

"The correlative sequence whether...or (whether) is an alternative condition in that logically it combines the conditional meaning of if with the disjunctive meaning of either...or. It is thus a means of coordinating two subordinate clauses. If the second unit is a full clause, whether may be repeated as in [the flight sentence above]:

Whether Martin pays for the broken vase or (whether) he replaces it with a new vase, I'm not inviting him again."

So, the CaGEL would regard the OP's sentence as 'well-formed', and following Fowler we could say that the repetition of whether serves to give the or clause slightly greater emphasis than it would have without it.

And in the Pence example, the repetition of whether separates and gives equal prominence to each of the three fairly long clauses headed by it.

  • Thanks for unearthing the example in The Comprehensive Grammar, which may be outdated by CGEL by Pullum in its content but still seems more "comprehensive" in its coverage. The more I do the digging, the more I realize it may not be an uncommon construction, albeit predominantly used in spoken English such as speeches and interviews, so I'm quite surprised at the scant attention it's received in grammar books (and language journals). – JK2 Jun 14 at 0:48
  • @JK2. Yes, in some respects I prefer Quirk's tome to H&P's , but I find its index really unpleasant to use. (Good question, by the way!) – Shoe Jun 14 at 7:08
  • There is no difference in meaning between in 3) as regards the meaning when you use the second "whether". So the present masters of the grammar universe fail miserably here. In most rational discourse,if there are two different names for a thing in grammar, they are not the same! In their sample, the same is true. "Whether Martin pays for the broken vase or (whether) he replaces it with a new vase." have the same semantic content with or without the second whether, the meaning does not change. People speak that way, fine. So this is a pair of twisted knickers. – Lambie Jun 15 at 14:28
  • Which edition of Fowler are you citing? – Toothrot Jun 16 at 16:11
  • @Toothrot. The quote is from the second (1981) edition of Fowler's Modern English Usage as revised by Sir Ernest Gowers and completely reset . – Shoe Jun 17 at 7:10
2

For usage, I suggest you look in a dictionary that has example sentences, not a grammar book.

I find that Oxford gives lots of examples, so that will be my starting point.

1 Expressing a doubt or choice between alternatives.

‘he seemed undecided whether to go or stay’

‘it is still not clear whether or not he realizes’

1.1 Expressing an enquiry or investigation (often used in indirect questions)

‘I'll see whether she's at home’

1.2 Indicating that a statement applies whichever of the alternatives mentioned is the case.

‘I'm going whether you like it or not’

‘The same position applies if it is not known whether a deportation order has been made or not.’

Phrases

whether or no

1 Whether or not.

‘the only issue arising would be whether or no the publication was defamatory’

2 In any case.

‘God help us, whether or no!’

Now to the feedback on your four proposals.

(1) I'm buying it whether I can afford it. This structure doesn't appear in any of the examples, so you are right, we're going to have to nix this one. Here's what would work:

I'm not sure whether I can afford it.

(2) I'm buying it whether I can afford it or not. From the Oxford examples, we see that this is fine (see 1.2). Note that it is also possible, and perhaps more common, to swap the order, which would result in

I'm buying it whether or not I can afford it (see 1.1).

(3) I'm buying it whether I can afford it, or whether I have to take out a loan. This one doesn't appear in any of the Oxford examples, so I checked Cambridge. It has

I didn’t know whether he was too busy or (whether) he just didn’t want to see me.

But this example is from the other meaning of whether -- "Expressing a doubt or choice between alternatives (Oxford)," "used especially in reporting questions and expressing doubts (Cambridge)." Your (3) is the meaning "Indicating that a statement applies whichever of the alternatives mentioned is the case (Oxford)," "used to introduce two or more possibilities (Cambridge)."

So (3) doesn't work as written.

(4) I'm buying it whether I can afford it or (I) have to take out a loan. This is fine as long as you don't omit the I in the parentheses.


Responding to additional material in question:

(5a) (with some simplification) This President is going to make sure that you have resources you need to accomplish your mission — whether that be saving people from human trafficking, whether it be sparing families the scourge of narcotics, or whether it be stopping the violence of MS-13 and other gangs that are flowing into our country.

(5b) I am absolutely convinced that segregation is on its deathbed, and those who represent it, whether they be in the United States or whether they be in London, England, the system is on its deathbed (MLK).

The subjunctive is a red herring. It doesn't change things.

The extra whethers in 5a and 5b aren't needed. I believe they serve a rhetorical purpose and this is an example of pleonasm, defined in Merriam-Webster as

the use of more words than those necessary to denote mere sense.

Pleonasm, which stems via Late Latin from the Greek verb pleonazein ("to be excessive"), is a fancy word for "redundancy." It's related to our words "plus" and "plenty," and ultimately it goes back to the Greek word for "more," which is "pleōn." Pleonasm is commonly considered a fault of style, but it can also serve a useful function. "Extra" words can sometimes be helpful to a speaker or writer in getting a message across, adding emphasis, or simply adding an appealing sound and rhythm to a phrase

  • With the caveat that obviously the listed usage examples aren't the be-all-end-all of English usage, this is about right. Worth mentioning that the compound example, it's short for '~ or not'. That means the original example 3 in the original post doesn't work. – lly Jun 9 at 5:57
  • @lly (your username is hard to figure out!) - thanks, I'm going to revise what I said about (3). // My approach is intended to walk OP through a simple process anyone could follow, to increase their confidence and independence. – aparente001 Jun 9 at 11:48
  • I haven't said that (3) doesn't work. So I don't know why you say "I agree with you that (3) doesn't work as written." More importantly, just because you can't find a usage example in a dictionary or two (or many more dictionaries) doesn't mean such a usage doesn't work. Who says that usage examples in any dictionary are supposed to be comprehensive? Also note that my question is specifically about the exhaustive conditional construction. – JK2 Jun 10 at 2:05
  • @JK2 - Did I misunderstand "I wouldn't use (3) myself"? I can certainly take out the part about agreeing with you, if the way I wrote that sentence isn't accurate. – aparente001 Jun 10 at 2:21
  • Sorry for the potential confusion. What I meant by that was just that. But I don't think that should translate into "I think (3) doesn't work", because some people wouldn't use certain constructions even though they're perfectly grammatical. In any case, if I had thought or even known (3) didn't work, why would I have posted the question in the first place? – JK2 Jun 10 at 2:26
0

Whether originally meant which of two. (See the Oxford English Dictionary; and cf. Lt. uter (and ne-uter) and Gr. πότερον.) Originally, one could say something like: Whether do you prefer; apples or oranges? In modern usage, it should therefore, one should think, always introduce two alternatives. And yet one can say I don't know whether I can afford it. But this is no longer strange if understood as an elliptic version of I don't know whether: (a) I can afford it or (b) not.

So why is your (1) not all right? As far as I can tell, this is simply an historical accident: it might have been idiomatic but isn't.

The reason (3) is hardly possible is more obvious, for it seems to expand to:

(3') I'm buying it whether: (a) I can afford it [ie. I do not have to take out a loan] or (b) whether: (m) I have to take out a loan or (n) not [ie. I can afford it].

Which is nonsense. On this interpretation. There is another interpretation, which does make (3) possible, or at least intelligible. It is not so easy to see here, but it is the most natural interpretation of your added example (5).

(5) And I want to assure you that this President is going to continue to work with members of Congress, like Congressman Andy Harris, to make sure that you have the resources and the support that you need to accomplish your mission — whether that be saving people from human trafficking, whether it be sparing families the scourge of narcotics, drug abuse, addiction, and overdose, or whether it be stopping the violence of MS-13 and other gangs that are flowing into our country.

Let's simplify.

(6) We will do what is necessary, whether it be A, whether it be B, or whether it be C.

I guess the intention here is to write the equivalent of

(7) We will do what is necessary, whether it be A, B, or C.

The repetition of whether it be is merely rhetorical. Now, (7) is about as grammatic as

(8) He was both tall, dark, and handsome.

Of course, both introduces exactly 2 things, so this is not quite all right. Now one may argue that, since whether is no longer heard as which of two, (7) cannot be judged as harshly. But what about (6)? Isn't it like

(9) He was both tall, both dark, and both handsome.

Being of a prescriptivist bent, I would say these considerations make (5) unacceptable. But I can see how (5) and (6) may feel right and will be accepted by most.

But now, you say, (3) is no different. I agree. If you read (3) as having the same structure as (5), then it becomes equivalent to

(3'') I'm buying it whether I can afford it or I have to take out a loan.

So, yes, if you accept (5), then you should in principle accept (3). But I think (7) and (3'') should be preferred. And let me be clear that (3), if it should be accepted, should be so only by analogy and in principle: it looks dumb and there is no good reason to repeat the whether (in (5) you can see how one might want to do this for the rhetorical effect).

  • Please check the latest edit to the question. – JK2 Jun 10 at 2:38
  • @JK2, ok, that changes things a bit. – Toothrot Jun 10 at 8:48
  • Thanks for the PS. But given the PS, I think your original answer that concludes (3) is impossible should be revised accordingly. – JK2 Jun 10 at 10:54
-1

Question: Can the or-coordination reside outside the whether-clause, as in (3)?

Answer: In (3) "I'm buying it whether I can afford it, or whether I have to take out a loan." the or does not "reside outside the whether-clause". It is part of it.

What the dictionaries are not telling us.

Sample sentences:

  1. *I'm buying it whether I can afford it. [Not Acceptable, two choices are neither stated nor implied.]

  2. I'm buying it whether I can afford it or not. [Acceptable, "afford it or not afford it", two choices are stated]

  3. I'm buying it whether I can afford it, or whether I have to take out a loan. [not acceptable, two whethers are not grammatical for the same possibility.]

Correction: I'm buying it whether I can afford it or have to take out a loan.

The word whether in an utterance requires a choice of two possibilities, whether stated or implied. When the whether is followed by a verb phrase, the "or" must be stated and not just implied.

whether requires two phrases, formed with a verb phrase or noun phrase.

  • ‘I like apples whether you do or not.’ [two verbs: like or not like]
  • ‘He will go soon whether by hook or by crook.’ [two prepositional phrases with nouns]

Summary: to use whether, you need two choices in your utterance on either side of the "or" conjunction. Two whethers in the same utterance, therefore, do not work.

MAIN POINT: Sometimes, the "or not" which provides two choices is implied and not stated outright.

Here are the examples from the New York Times on this:

whether. Often or not is redundant after whether, but not always. The phrase may ordinarily be omitted in these cases:

• When the whether clause is the object of a verb: She wonders whether the teacher will attend. (The clause is the object of wonders.)

• When the clause is the object of a preposition: The teacher will base his decision on whether the car has been repaired. (The clause is the object of on.)

• When the clause is the subject of the sentence: Whether the car will be ready depends on the mechanic. (The clause is the subject of depends.)

But when a whether clause modifies a verb, or not is needed: They will play tomorrow whether or not it rains. (The clause modifies play.)

whether or not explained by the New York Times

Final Comment: The "or" is mutually exclusive but is not always stated outright; it is implied. This is true whether you like it or not. [verb, stated not implied] Whether this is absolutely true, is a matter for mathematicians. [no verb, the "or" is implied]. Whether you have an enjoyable day is not for me to say. :) [Yep, the "or" is implied.]

Later COMMENT: "Remarks by Vice President Pence in Press Gaggle":

The remarks were off the cuff. They are spoken on the fly. They are not written language. Therefore, they cannot be expected to follow rules for written grammar. Also, people like the veep (at present) of the US are not exactly luminaries at speaking in clear English. He repeats the word whether unnecessarily. A more proficient, elegant and trained speaker would not.

Here are his words as quoted by the OP:

(5) And I want to assure you that this President is going to continue to work with members of Congress, like Congressman Andy Harris, to make sure that you have the resources and the support that you need to accomplish your mission — whether that be saving people from human trafficking, whether it be sparing families the scourge of narcotics, drug abuse, addiction, and overdose, or whether it be stopping the violence of MS-13 and other gangs that are flowing into our country.

And here is how a more accomplished speaker (emphasis on speaker) might have expressed this:

(5) And I want to assure you that this President is going to continue to work with members of Congress, like Congressman Andy Harris, to make sure that you have the resources and the support you need to accomplish your mission — whether that be saving people from human trafficking, sparing families the scourge of narcotics, drug abuse, addiction, and overdose, or stopping the violence of MS-13 and other gangs that are flowing into our country.

Whether can apply to three options, yes. But the term whether need not be repeated to do so. That is just overkill.

  • The New York Times blog is simply laying out a very basic rule of the whether-clause, and this rule doesn't even talk about the issue of repeating whether "when a whether clause modifies a verb" (as the blog puts it). Unless you're suggesting that the blog's failure to cover the issue says anything about the issue, which I hope you're not, what reference do you have in your answer that supports your claim that (3), (5), and (5') are "unacceptable" in written English? – JK2 Jun 12 at 16:14
  • 1) is unacceptable because it is not grammatical. The RULE is: when the whether clause modifies a verb, you need the "or x". "whether or you can afford it" is a shortened form of =if you can afford it or if you can't afford it. 5) and 5)' are spoken issues. Speech not writing. That is why the issue is not even addressed in any standard rules. The grammar of spoken language is often very different from the grammar of written language. This is an entire subject in itself but most people realize that speech and writing are different animals. – Lambie Jun 12 at 16:33
  • The very nature of speaking is different from writing. It has its own features like repetitions, elision, truncation, distortions, odd pauses, etc. etc. I know because I am an interpreter. That's what I do. An interpreter listening to Pence would not repeat the whether. It is, of course, acceptable in speech. But not in writing. Editors remove unnecessary repetition or extraneous elements. And that's why grammarians (who mostly deal with written language) don't bother addressing it specifically. – Lambie Jun 12 at 16:38
  • Firstly, "whether or not you can afford it" is a shortened form NOT of "if you can afford it or if you can't afford it" BUT of "if you can afford it and if you can't afford it". Secondly, simply because it's "spoken" doesn't mean it's suspect. It's to be distinguished from meaningless repetitions. Thirdly, linguists do heavily rely on spoken language data as well as written, especially when the spoken data is carefully prepared (as in the veep's "remarks"). It's very likely that these remarks by Mike Pence had been carefully drafted beforehand. And the repetition is quite habitual. – JK2 Jun 12 at 22:59
  • @JK2 You know what I meant. Big deal,a couple of slips in typing. And you are WRONG: whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/… Your second quote comes him in a Q&A. NOT prepared. No one but me, I will point out, even mentioned the speaking versus writing thing. Also, he starts his "remarks" with "first off", which is odd for careful drafting, to say the least, and this is a transcription. Not a recording. So, we can't know exactly. However, the repetition of whether is not good in writing. – Lambie Jun 12 at 23:12

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