if whether or not

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During a recent meeting with a grad student about research, the student produced if whether or not at the beginning of a subordinate clause where either if or whether or not (but not the two together) would have been appropriate. I  didn't catch the preceding context in detail, but I did notice the expression, and afterwards I googled on it.

And, of course, pulled up quite a few (legitimate-looking) examples. I have an idea about why people might have hit on this doubly-marked subordination (which I don't recall having come across before, and which seems to have escaped the notice of usage complainers; if it came by them, they probably just thought it was a slip of the tongue).

This posting is a quick documenting of the phenomenon, not a careful discussion; I just didn't want it to fall into the pit that contains hundreds of unfinished postings for Language Log.

First, a few examples:

Anyone read the end of Debt of Honor by Clancy? I'm debating if whether or not that would be such a bad thing to happen. (link)

Nov 28, 2006 … So, it would be a help if you would let us know if whether or not Sony is cooperative with you. (link)

Your next step before finding a Toronto apartment rental is to decide if whether or not you would like to live with a roommate. (link)

The background:

Point 1. English has two main ways of indicating uncertainty/choice in subordinate clauses: with if and with whether.

Point 2. If and whether overlap in their meanings, discourse functions, and syntactic contexts, but they differ in all of these respects (and in how all of these things work in different varieties of English). There's a fair literature on this stuff; it's a wonderfully complex subject. The very short summary: if tends to focus on uncertainly/conditionality, whether on choice.

Point 3. A major difference is in syntactic category: if is a subordinator (a.k.a. subordinating conjunction), whether is a WH adverbial, and this difference has a lot of consequences for how they're used.

Point 4. Both if and whether can occur with clause-final or not (I don't know if/whether I'm going or not), but not always in the same contexts.

Point 5. In standard English, whether — but not if — can occur with following or not in clause-initial position (I'll refer to this as clause-initial or not):

I don't know whether/*if or not I'm going.

(but see below).

Point 6 (somewhat off-topic). A fair number of usage manuals tell you to jettison the or not of whether … or not (in any position) wherever possible (it's not always possible). Omit Needless Words! This is a classic battle in the contest between Clarity (in this case, the desire to make explicit the opposition of the choices introduced by whether) and Brevity (in this case, the desire to eliminate or not when its meaning can be determined from other aspects of structure or from context). Whether … or not is explicit, whether alone is implicit. Both are good, but they have different virtues.

Fortunately, this particular point doesn't seem to bear on the if whether or not phenomenon, but I mention it here because commenters would if I didn't.

Point 7. Irrelevancies. Some googled examples just have if as a typo for of:

The price can also be a big indicator if whether or not the piece is authenic. (link)

And some have a whether or not clause as the subject of an if clause:

We wanted to see if whether or not students have children is related to whether or not they attend school full or part time. (link)

Now: how do you end up with the double-barreled if whether or not? Here's my suggestion about how it might have come about in the first place …

Suppose you want BOTH the semantics/discouse function of if (rather than whether) AND the emphatic effect of sentence-initial or not. But sentence-initial or not requires whether. So you end up producing a combination of plain if (satisfying the first of these goals) and whether or not (satisfying the second). This is a kind of speech error.

But then other people, hearing or reading if whether or not, might decide that this is a way of getting the uncertainty or conditionality semantics of if plus the choice semantics of whether or not in a single package, and if whether or not becomes (for some people) an idiomatic combination. The result is an instance of what I've called on the American Dialect Society mailing list "piling on" — combining two expressions with similar meaning to get a result that, though in a sense redundant (or "pleonastic"), has some contribution from each component and also is more emphatic than either component alone. Piling-on examples that have become part of many people's grammars: the extent modifiers small little and tiny little and (for those who have tad) tad bit; and great big has now become standard English (though informal in style). This is just a sampling of cases.

Several quick final remarks. First, I'm not saying that if whether or not is standard; it certainly isn't. But (again) I'm saying that it's part of some speakers' grammars, and not always a slip.

Second, I'm reiterating that the oddities of non-standard usages are not just symptoms of laziness, ignorance, inattention, and the like on the part of ordinary speakers, but instead show these speakers working (tacitly) to get their language to do what they want it to do. A non-standard variant that is adopted by some group of speakers almost always has specifically LINGUISTIC virtues: in particular, it promotes clarity, brevity, regularity, or expressivity (allowing for nuances of meaning or import not easily available in the standard variety). (Yes, as with all linguistic variation, the choice of variants here is usually associated with sociolinguistic values, but in general there are also communicative virtues).

Third, following up on the preceding point: I'm NOT saying that people are never lazy, ignorant, inattentive, and so on. We all are, frequently. I AM saying that variants that spread within some group of speakers, even if these variants are flagrantly non-standard, usually do so because they have something going for them communicatively. Nobody's telling you that you should talk or write like that. But I'm telling you that you should give some credit to those who do talk or write like that. Thoughtless contempt for them is not an appropriate response.

Fourth, an actual data matter. Go back to my suggestion about the early stages of if whether or not, where my idea was that the originators were trying to get both if and clause-initial or not. One possibility is to produce them both: if whether or not. But another possibility is to get parts of each: if or not. This could be seen as originating in a syntactic blend, an inadvertent error. Or as the extension of a pattern of subordinate clause marking from whether to if (in the same way that syntactic constructions can be extended to new lexical items, as when donate, for some speakers, becomes possible as a double-NP dative verb — I donated the church a lot of money). Such extension would be one type of what's traditionally called ANALOGY.

The difference between the two accounts (blending and extension) is in what's posited to be in people's heads, and it's entirely likely that the precipitating events sometimes took one route and sometimes the other. My own impression is that extension/analogy is a hugely more important factor in syntactic change than blending. But in this case, we don't have to decide: my suggestion is that, however it got started, if or not became grammaticalized for some speakers. Some examples:

How can we check if or not the fire pump is UL listed/FM approved? (link)

To judge if or not a DVD-rom or DVD drive is faulty is not as difficult as to … (link)

 … tracks student access, progress and completion of lessons, and this tracking determines if or not the student has started and completed lessons. (link)

Remember that this posting is very exploratory. An obvious thing to do now is to go to those who produced instances of if whether or not and if or not and ask them if that's what they intended to say or write. Unfortunately, a negative answer can't be taken at face value: people sometimes disavow things that are entirely normal for them, either because they believe the examples violate some rule they've heard about, or because they tried to work out the syntax for the examples and couldn't make it work — not an unreasonable strategy, but one that fails to take into account the very many idioms with odd syntax. In language, as in many other things, there are minority options.



  1. Garrett Wollman said,

    May 11, 2008 @ 7:01 pm

    Could you please explain how you come to the conclusion that "if whether or not … [is] part of some speakers' grammars"? That certainly doesn't seem to follow from the data you have presented. Are you making this judgment on the basis of some a priori principle, or observed frequency (relative or absolute), or some other criterion you haven't mentioned? Your story of how it could have been adopted is plausible, but to me it seems equally plausible that your observation reflects only indecision or editorial error on the part of the writers.

  2. Ewan said,

    May 11, 2008 @ 9:30 pm

    Off topic, but I've been longing for a while to ask others about the apparent subject-to-subject use of "bad", so I will strike while the iron is hot:

    (1) That would be a bad thing to happen.

    I say "subject-to-subject" because the subject of the main clause ("that") is related in some way to the implied subject of the embedded non-finite clause ("(that) to happen"), so that the logical structure of (1) is something like (1a):

    (1a) would-be[that, bad, [(that) to happen]]

    I hear this sometimes, but it strikes me as quite odd. Sometimes it is much worse:

    (2) ??*Certain things are bad to happen.
    (3) ??*John is bad to run.

    A better sentence for me would be:

    (4) That would be a bad thing to have happen.

    At least as good, or at least as common to hear (or, should I say, to be heard) as (1) is (5):

    (5) That's easy to happen.

    Easy, hard, common – whatever. All of these canonically relate a subject to an embedded *object* (or non-subject) as in (4), or (6):

    (6) That's easy to eat.

    I feel like this ought to have been covered somewhere on LL. Any other examples of this kind of construction sounding as good as in (1) welcome.

  3. Craig Russell said,

    May 11, 2008 @ 11:53 pm

    This "if whether or not" is not one that I've noticed–but maybe now it will become one. (It seems I can't go a day now without hearing an "is is").

    Unscientific as it is, my gut suggests that perhaps more of these are examples of the irrelevancies than is immediately obvious, particularly the first one where "if" is a typo for (or some other kind of mistake for) "of". Even though "of" would be no more standard than "if" in the googled examples ("let us know of whether or not Sony is cooperative"), I feel like "of" would be a little easier to comprehend in these examples than "if". As I repeat the google search, I notice several other cases where "if" should clearly be "of" :(e.g. http://developer.mozilla.org/en/docs/nsINavHistoryService: "It is also true of any content in a frame, regardless if whether or not the user clicked something to get there."). When speaking quickly, there is very little difference between "if" and "of", and there are other common expressions where similar-sounding words or syllables get reinterpreted as "of" (e.g. "could of" for "could've").

    A google of "of whether or not" shows that this string of words is extremely common, a hundred times more so than "if whether or not", and a quick look through some of the results suggests to me that in some of the "of whether or not"s, the "of" is being used pretty loosely to link the main clause to the subordinate:

    "What is the largest uncertainty of whether or not life exists beyond earth?"

    Perhaps an "of", used in the same sort of loose expressions as these, is being reinterpreted as "if" in some of the "real" "if whether or not" expressions. It also seems possible to me that some of them could be examples of the second irrelevancy–as in "If, whether or not he intends to be, the president is being viewed as a failure, the question is, where does he go from here?"–in which the construction is changed mid-sentence, leaving "if" with no clause of its own. This too would be easier for me to swallow than "real" "if whether or not".

    I'll have to keep my ears open–now I'll probably start hearing it if whether or not I want to.

  4. joji said,

    May 12, 2008 @ 3:15 am

    "if" and "whether" are conjunctions. using them both at the same time in the same context is confusing. my repertoire of grammar rules is limited but my guts tell me using both at the same does not sound right. i agree with craig russel when he said that "of" may have been reinterpreted as "if" in the example he cited.

    i am certain whether or not it sounds right. i am also certain if it sounds right or not.

  5. outeast said,

    May 12, 2008 @ 4:40 am

    Regardless of if whether or not 'if whether or not' has really 'become part of some speakers' grammars', this post contains a really good and clear discussion of what a descriptivist approach to language means – and how it is useful.

  6. JanetK said,

    May 12, 2008 @ 4:56 am

    It is so refreshing to read your blog. I like people would do not assume that there is only one way to do each particular thing – and they, after thought, work, study or other effort, having decided what is the right thing in a particular situation – then seeing someone else do a different thing do not immediately and without further thought just assume that the other person is ignorant, lazy, immoral, insane for something. (How is that for a sentence!) It is great to have a blogger who does not think all situations/motivations/values are the same because they are somewhat similar.

  7. Bonechar said,

    May 12, 2008 @ 11:17 am

    Strangely (at least to me), "if whether or not" is actually much more natural to me than "if or not" even though I don't think I would ever produce either construction except in error. When I started reading the article I was already trying come up with a sentence where "if whether or not" made sense to me (apart from the "if (whether or not X) A is…" sense) and wasn't able to, but reading the examples none of them seemed all that striking to me and I had no delay in parsing or understanding them at all. I could actually see it becoming grammatical for me, in fact, even if I still didn't tend to use it for stylistic reasons. "If or not" on the other hand stops me dead, and I have to work a little to understand the sentence (generally by mentally substituting "whether" for "if" or excising the "or not"). So what does this say about my own grammar?

    I was a computer programmer for many years, and I'm pretty certain that "if or not" bothers me because I have a programmer's idea of conditionals (the same reason double negatives for emphasis still confuse me even when it's perfectly obvious from context, and "or" is exclusive by default in my mind); I can explain a lot of my personal understanding of grammar on this basis. It seems like that should apply just as strongly to "if whether or not," though, so why doesn't that give me any pause at all?

  8. Bonechar said,

    May 12, 2008 @ 11:32 am

    Rereading Craig Russell's comment, I see in his example of the "second irrelevancy" (is there a list?) a hint of an explanation: "If, whether or not he intends to be, the president is being viewed as a failure, the question is, where does he go from here?" This is just the "if (whether or not X) A" construction, but Craig's assertion that "if" is left without a clause (false: "if … the president is being viewed as a failure [then] the question is, where does he go from here?") made me think about it, and I wonder if the reason "if whether or not A" doesn't bother me is because I initially parse it as "if (whether or not A) A" (distributing A to parallel conjunctions instead of nesting them as I assumed would be my habit). Of course "if (whether or not A) A" is basically meaningless, but it's not ungrammatical, so it slips by that particular filter and is interpreted further down the line, as it were.

  9. Craig Russell said,

    May 12, 2008 @ 4:55 pm


    I wasn't asserting that sentences of the type "if, whether or not he intends to be, the president is viewed as a failure…" are themselves sentences where "if" is left without a clause. (I call this the "second irrelevancy" in reference to the list in the original posting).

    My suggestion was that perhaps some of the "if whether or not" sentences are sentences that were ORIGINALLY INTENDED to be of that unproblematic type, but where the speaker/writer changes his mind mid-sentence (or loses track of his own syntax because of the length and complexity of what he's saying). I can imagine that, especially in spoken English, it would be easy when saying a sentence of that length to forget by the end of it where you had started.

    The more I think about the issue, the more I suspect that, if indeed there is a legitimate new category of "if whether or not sentences", they arise from a misanalysis (or, perhaps, more charitably, a re-analysis) of "of whether or not" sentences of the following type:

    Regardless of whether or not you want to admit it, I'm here to stay.

    In normal spoken English, I think in a lot of situations it would be difficult to hear the difference between "of whether or not" and "if whether or not", so it would be easy to hear the above sentence as:

    Regardless if whether or not you want to admit it, I'm here to stay.

    As I mentioned before, the analogy of "I could of done it if I'd tried", where "could of" clearly originates from a mishearing of "could've", seems to be appropriate. Even though it's hard to account for the "of" in any of its normal uses as a preposition, etc., "could've" and the like would be heard often enough that, if you think you're hearing "could of", it would begin to seem unremarkable.

    Likewise, once you begin to understand sentences like the one above as saying "if whether or not" instead of "of whether or not", it would be easy to create in your mind a new superconjunction "if whether or not"–possibly made easier by the interchangeability of "if" and "whether (or not)" in many circumstances–which you then apply in new situations, even when the "if" couldn't stand for an original "of".

    Going back to my "could of" example: I have heard people say things like "I wish I hadn't of done that," where the "of" *can't* be converted to "I wish I hadn't've done that"–I doubt these people would write or say "I wish I hadn't have done that." What seems to be happening here is that "of" has become identified as a particle to be used in certain counterfactual situations, separate from its original identify as a misheard "have". I suggest that "if whether or not" might be the same thing.

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