Whether she did or whether she didn't

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"Whether Ruth Madoff knew of her husband’s scheme or whether she didn’t are two unnerving possibilities."

That's the lead on the front page of the NYTimes this morning pointing to this article.

What a sentence! We can blame it squarely on the front-page-online editors, because it isn't in the article; I found in the article a sentence that has almost exactly the form I was going to suggest as the right way to say what they obviously intended: "In the social circles where the couple once traveled, both possibilities are unnerving — that Ruth Madoff was in on this, or that she wasn’t.", using that instead of whether. I would also have used and instead of or, given that they've spoken of "both possibilities". (I guess I would use or if they had written "either possibility is unnerving". But I know that we tend to be relaxed about and's and or's, so that part doesn't surprise me.)

I know that things like this often happen, but I never saw such an extreme example — the two whether-clauses presented as alternatives are actually, on standard analyses going back to Karttunen's 1977 article in the first issue of Linguistics and Philosophy, synonymous, since each is implicitly disjunctive with its negation and they are negations of each other.

I actually didn't understand what they had in mind until I got to the end of the sentence. Initially I thought it was a much more benign phenomenon of just inserting a second 'whether', and that this was going to be what Zaefferer calls an 'unconditional' — e.g. "Whether Ruth Madoff knew of her husband’s scheme or whether she didn’t, she may still be considered culpable …", equivalent to "Whether she knew or not, she may still …".  So this is not just a matter of stylistics — there's just no way to literally read the first part of the sentence as an itemization of the two unnerving possibilities.


  1. MM said,

    January 15, 2009 @ 6:39 am

    This reminds me of the common statement, 'You have two choices'. I have always found that confusing. It seems to mean 'one choice between two options'.

  2. Dougal Stanton said,

    January 15, 2009 @ 6:42 am

    You're right, that is quite a sentence. I wonder if its unusual phrasing is what contributes to its impact? Like you say, it seems straightforward until the "twist" at the end. I rather like it.

  3. Arnold Zwicky said,

    January 15, 2009 @ 7:21 am

    To MM: "choice" can mean either 'act of choosing' or 'option', and (according to the OED) both meanings have been around for a very long time. That does mean that "You have two choices" is ambiguous, as between two chances to choose and two options, but the intended meaning will usually be clear in context.

  4. MM said,

    January 15, 2009 @ 10:11 am

    I see: this is no. 8 in the OED, 'an alternative', first cited in 1794. I wasn't aware of that, and I found the use confusing until the writer (as usually happened) then listed the two options!

  5. Brett said,

    January 15, 2009 @ 10:32 am

    I found that headline sufficiently off-putting that I decided not to read the article.

  6. Nigel Greenwood said,

    January 15, 2009 @ 12:59 pm

    Does she did or does she didn't know?

  7. Mark Liberman said,

    January 15, 2009 @ 1:23 pm

    Nigel Greenwood may be implicitly invoking the great Louis Jordan song "Is you is or is you ain't my baby?"; but that lyric doesn't continue "… are two unnerving possibilities". Of course, neither unnerving nor possibilities are very likely words for a song in that style. Maybe "… are things that keep me up at night" would be a better (missing) parallel.

  8. Irene said,

    January 15, 2009 @ 2:03 pm

    Following is the sentence from the article that I found most difficult: "At this point, as a mess that Mr. Madoff himself is said to have estimated at $50 billion lands in litigation, the main characters aren’t talking." Changing "a mess" to "the mess" would have helped. And "At this point" adds nothing.

    I think an improvement would be: As Mr. Madoff's mess (which some say he estimated at $50 billion) lands in litigation, the main characters aren’t talking.

  9. Tom Recht said,

    January 15, 2009 @ 7:37 pm

    An even more redundant "unconditional" construction, which I've actually heard used, is "whether or not [X] or not or whether or not [not X] or not". (I can't remember what the actual predication was; I think "X" and "not X" involved two antonymic adjectives.)

  10. Helma said,

    January 15, 2009 @ 8:14 pm

    Reading the article's painful formulation online yesterday made me think of the nice way classical Greek has of expressing this, which is at first surprising. By 'this' I mean,

    "Regardless of whether A is true *or* B is true, C is true"

    In classical Greek this combination of possibilities would be expressed with the conditional conjunction combined with an enclitic coordinating particle:
    ei_te A ei_te B, C.
    Lit., this would be
    'if_and A, if_and B, C'

  11. Tom Recht said,

    January 15, 2009 @ 9:04 pm

    Helma: the Greek construction is yet more elegant in that A and B don't have to be verbal clauses, e.g.: khrusou helikas peri tois eit' odousin eite kerasi, literally "gold rings around its whether tusks or horns" (the meaning being "whether you want to call them tusks or horns, it (an elephant) had gold rings around them").

  12. Helma said,

    January 17, 2009 @ 2:04 pm

    Tom —
    Yes. A nice example, with the eite A eite B falling under the scope of the definite article!

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