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Is the following sentence grammatically correct?

The word "if" is not used in this sentence, which I'm not sure is a mistake or not.

And if anyone has a link to a reference on conditional clauses within relative clauses, that would be great!

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  • The sentence makes perfect grammatical sense to me.
    – Steve
    May 25, 2023 at 21:54
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    The or not is misplaced; it adds nothing and confuses. Without it, the sentence is fine as written, or spoken with air quotes, and could appear in a discussion of the use/mention distinction. May 25, 2023 at 22:32
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    Where is the conditional clause? The word "if" does not do its normal work here, but stands as the word "if" for the quotes. May 25, 2023 at 23:34
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    @YosefBaskin Exactly the question I was going to ask. There is nothing conditional about this sentence. May 26, 2023 at 0:53
  • @MarcInManhattan — I think OP is trying to compare something like I like cats, which I’m not sure is a mistake or not and I like cats, which I’m not sure if that is a mistake or not. (I’d say: I like cats; I’m not sure whether or not that is a mistake.) May 26, 2023 at 2:29

3 Answers 3

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So this is actually surprisingly tricky. A better example would be:

I drink coffee, which I don't know is healthy or not.

First, "know" can be used with either a content clause or an interrogative clause:

  1. I don't know (that) coffee is healthy.
  2. I don't know whether coffee is healthy.

Only version (2) allows you to add "or not," making an alternative question:

  1. * I don't know (that) coffee is healthy or not.
  2. I don't know whether coffee is healthy or not.

But only version (1) allows you to replace "coffee" with the gap in a relative clause:

  1. I drink coffee, which I don't know is healthy.
  2. * I drink coffee, which I don't know whether is healthy.

So let's go back to our example from earlier:

I drink coffee, which I don't know is healthy or not.

This is invalid. The "or not" only makes sense if what follows "know" is an interrogative clause. But the position of the gap replaced by "which" only makes sense if "know" is followed by a content clause.

But this invalidity is rather subtle, so I think that this sort of construction can be found in informal speech.

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  • NP antecedents and clausal antrecedents may not behave similarly, so changing the example from one class to another may well not be justified. May 26, 2023 at 13:38
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Compare

  • The word 'if' is not used in this sentence, which I'm sure is a mistake.

This sounds unremarkable, natural. It being peculiar to refer to a sentence as 'a mistake' ('contains a mistake' is normal), the reading is virtually guaranteed to be

  • The word 'if' is not used in this sentence. This omission, I'm sure, is a mistake.

That is, the non-defining which-clause relates to the whole main clause as referent.

However,

  • The word 'if' is not used in this sentence, which I'm not sure is a mistake [or not].

is unidiomatic. Proper is

  • The word 'if' is not used in this sentence, which I'm not sure isn't a mistake. Compare
  • The word 'if' is not used in this sentence, which I'm not sure isn't [not 'is'] wrong.
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There are more than one errors in the sentence in question. The most obvious is in the relative clause and the indirect question embedded in it. For ease of reference I cite it below.

The word "if" is not used in this sentence, which I'm not sure is a mistake or not.

Disentangling the problem is complicated. It appears that the mistake referred to is the omission of the word 'if'. As others have pointed out, it is not clear whether the relative pronoun relates to word 'if' or to 'this sentence'.

But neither of these is the mistake, which is, as I have said above the omission. There are grammatical gymnastics you can use to get to that. If you must use the relative pronoun, that must clear. So if a relative pronoun must be used, we can write:

The word 'if' is not used in this sentence, of which I am unsure whether the omission is a mistake.

This will be understood but has a problem. The relative pronoun usually cleaves to the nearest noun phrase, which is "this sentence". So it will be common sense rather than the syntax that gives us the right understanding. You can dodge that problem by a simple reversal of word order, bringing the relative pronoun closer to its referend.

This sentence does not use the word 'if', of which I am not sure whether the omission is a mistake or not.

That could be seen as a rather convoluted way of saying it. The relative pronoun is not necessary. With can use a demonstrative pronoun, this.

This sentence does not use the word 'if'. I am not sure whether this omission is a mistake or not.

Or you could just use this on its own to refer to the whole predicate.

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