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April 2nd, 2008

Does whether need or not? / choosing between I or me

by Barbara Wallraff

Eric Waddell, of Presque Isle, Maine, writes: “I am currently a high school principal, but I was previously a high school English teacher, so I realize I am sticking my neck out by asking a grammar question. I taught my students that ‘whether’ was always followed by ‘or not’ -- as in ‘I will check the forecast to determine whether or not we’ll go to the beach.’ In a recent column, you wrote, ‘If you want to know whether a word is offensive ... it’s important to use the most recent dictionary you can find.’ Where’s the ‘or not’? Did I simply invent a rule?”

Dear Eric: I’ve heard other people say the same thing, so you didn’t invent the rule. Then again, I’ve heard yet other people argue that “whether” should never be followed by “or not,” because it’s a waste of words. So much for simple rules!

When “whether” means “no matter whether,” the “or not” is required -- as in “This is what I think, whether or not you agree with me.” (By the way, “or not” should ordinarily come right after “whether” -- as opposed to “whether you agree with me or not” -- because this word order is easier to follow.) When “whether” means “if,” though, the “or not” is generally unnecessary and better left out -- as in “I wonder whether you agree with me.” Your example sentence about going to the beach is on this pattern, so I would leave out “or not” -- unless for some reason you want to emphasize the possibility that you might not be going to the beach.

Also on the subject of being economical with words and syllables, shouldn’t someone who means “if” use “if,” instead of the longer “whether”? Usually. But anyone who’s thinking of taking me to task for my “whether” should please note that my sentence began with another “if.” Putting two of them in a row would make the sentence, um, iffy.

Alberta Parks, of Warren, Mich., writes: “Is there a simple way of telling when to use ‘I’ or ‘me’ in a sentence? I am not too bad with grammar and punctuation, but I do get confused about ‘I’ and ‘me.’”

Dear Alberta: You and about 100 million other people! These two common little words are misused so often, by so many generally well-educated folks, that I’m not sure we’re ever going to find our way back. At least you’re willing to admit that the words give you trouble.

The problem almost always comes up when someone is talking about another person too -- as in “Please tell my friend and ... me? I?” The way to get it right is amazingly easy, and you’ll find you already know which word to use, as long as you have time to think it through: If you were talking about only yourself, how would you say it? Of course you’d say, “Please tell me” -- so you should say, “Please tell my friend and me.” Let’s do another one: “I’ll bet this won’t bother you and ... I? me? ... anymore.” You’d say, “This won’t bother me,” so say, “This won’t bother you and me anymore” -- and I hope it’s true!

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

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