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January 31st, 2007

Toadstranglers / whether vs. whether or not

by Barbara Wallraff

Eric Francis, of North Little Rock, Ark., writes: “I’m curious if you’re familiar with a Southernism I’ve used for years and still have fun popping on unsuspecting non-Southerners: ‘toadstrangler.’ Ever crossed that one?”

Dear Eric: Why, a “toadstrangler” is a bad rainstorm. To be honest, I had no idea until you asked. The best place to look up expressions like this one is the Dictionary of American Regional English -- a huge reference work that’s both scholarly and entertaining. Unfortunately, although work on DARE began in the 1960s, the four existing volumes of it get no farther in the alphabet than words starting with “sk.” The volume that will include the “t” expressions isn’t scheduled for publication until 2009.

So I asked DARE’s editor, Joan Houston Hall, and she sent me the current draft of the entry for “toadstrangler.” This defines it as “a very heavy rain,” and gives citations dating back to 1906, when the word appeared in a Statesville, N.C., newspaper.

Hall also included drafts of the surrounding entries. Poor toads -- they have such an unglamorous image. The “biggest toad in the puddle” is “an important or self-important person.” A “toadstabber” is a “large folding knife” or a “sharp-pointed shoe or boot.” The most flattering toad-related regionalism I could find was “toadskin,” meaning “a dollar bill.” Like “toadstrangler,” this term is still in use. The latest DARE citation for it comes from someone in California posting on the Internet in 2003: “(He) won the Badge Raffle, 25 fresh toadskins, and he still refused to buy his mom and dad dinner after the meeting.” Ungrateful boy.

Darald Novak, of Schenectady, N.Y., writes: “‘Tomorrow might be sunny and warm, so we should think about whether to go to the beach.’ Shouldn’t the words ‘or not’ be added to the end of that sentence? As I recall, the word ‘whether’ indicates a choice, and both choices should be included in the sentence.”

Dear Darald: Aren’t you an optimist as far as the weather is concerned!

I’ve heard rumors of language authorities who believe “whether” always needs “or not” as an accompaniment, but they’re very much in the minority today. The standard advice now is to leave out, or delete, “or not” whenever the sentence is clear without it, as your sentence is.

Occasionally “or not” turns out to be necessary. For instance, “Whether or not it’s warm tomorrow, I want to go to the beach” wouldn’t make sense without “or not.” Even when the phrase isn’t necessary, feel free to include it if you want to emphasize the not” possibility: “If it’s sleeting tomorrow, let’s talk about whether or not we still want to go to the beach.”

One last thing about “or not” to keep in mind is where to put it. People often say things like “whether it’s warm tomorrow or not.” That’s OK in conversation, and it’s acceptable in writing if just a few words come between “whether” and its “or not.” But keeping the whole phrase together is almost always better form. And letting many words go by before getting around to “or not” is truly bad form. For instance, try never to write anything like “whether the sun is shining and it’s warm tomorrow or not.”

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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