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“Whether or not” vs. “whether”

For example:

"I was unsure whether to pity him."

"I was unsure whether to pity him or not."


Is it redundant? Yes. Is it unacceptable in speech or writing? No. But ultimately, the question is if it is redundant, or not, which it is.

Just to be clear, because my redundancy joke might confuse:

  • It is redundant to end with "or not," but redundancy is sometimes acceptable.
  • It is cleaner and frankly more interesting to leave it as "I was unsure whether to pity him."
  • The inclusion of "or not" conceptually reduces the statement to a binary choice between pity and no pity, whereas its exclusion leaves the statement more open-ended.
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  • Sorry...is is acceptable or not to say 'whether X or not." ? Too many negatives to follow. – Mitch Jan 11 '12 at 22:20
  • My apologies, I added a redundancy joke to my answer, which confused things. – Christopher Rayl Jan 11 '12 at 22:22
  • -1: this is the most confusing answer on SE I've ever read. – RiMMER Jan 11 '12 at 22:22
  • Give it another shot now. – Christopher Rayl Jan 11 '12 at 22:29
  • If I understand you correctly, could you then edit to say "Is it acceptable in speech or writing? Yes." ? (emphasis here for clarity not for the suggestion). – Mitch Jan 11 '12 at 22:47

It is redundant, though it might be useful for emphasis or clarity.

I used to write "whether or not" a lot, and I personally make a deliberate effort to remove the "or not"s.

In your example, "I am unsure whether to pity him", it is clear that there are two options: you might pity him, or you might not. Adding "or not" doesn't add any information. But it can be useful when you are trying to build dramatic tension into a sentence. Consider, "I don't like Bob, but he has a right to live, too." Versus, "I don't like Bob, but he may have a right to live ... or not."

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AHED defines whether:

  1. Used in indirect questions to introduce one alternative: We should find out whether the museum is open.
  2. Used to introduce alternative possibilities: Whether she wins or whether she loses, this is her last tournament.
  3. Either: He passed the test, whether by skill or luck.


  1. In the sense of presenting one alternative, or not is redundant.
  2. In the sense of introducing alternative possibilities or either, or not (shorthand for or not pity him in this case) is perfectly acceptable.

Looking at it yet another way:

Possibility A = pity him

Possibility B = !A = not pity him = not

So the OP's sentence becomes:

I was unsure whether to A or B. (I was unsure whether to pity him or not.)

It's perfectly clear that not (alternative B) is acceptable, by sense 2 or sense 3 of the dictionary definition.

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  • Downvoter: The OP is asking whether "or not" is redundant when weighing two options; by the dictionary definition of whether, it isn't. What's your beef? – Gnawme Jan 12 '12 at 0:31
  • Your answer affirms (in "So: 1") that "or not" is redundant, then muddies the waters by implying that (2) is somehow different. Might it not be her last tournament if in fact she draws? In "correct" usage, there are always two alternatives in any construction involving "whether" - it's just that the second may be left implicit if it's simply the negation of the first. Things would only be different if OP's alternative were different ("I was unsure whether to pity him or laugh at him"), which you have not considered. – FumbleFingers Jan 12 '12 at 1:18
  • @FumbleFingers In AHED's sense (1), n=1; in sense (2), n>1, so they are different. In sense (1), AHED disagrees that there are always two alternatives; Oxford concurs, noting that whether may express an enquiry. – Gnawme Jan 12 '12 at 1:33
  • In (1) there's no change in meaning with We should find out whether the museum is open or not, so there's an implicit alternative. Exactly the same applies to all other contexts you've quoted, including Oxford's "enquiry". I don't see why you think AHED "disagrees there are always two alternatives" - unless you're being misled by the archaic "whether or no", which is not under consideration here. OP is simply asking whether [or not] there are a contexts where "or not" is required, as opposed to simply optional. The alternative always exists, even if only implicitly. – FumbleFingers Jan 12 '12 at 1:53
  • @FumbleFingers "He was a cruel man, but fair." – Gnawme Jan 12 '12 at 5:12

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