In many places, you might have heard the phrase “Whether or not”. It’s a phrase that some think makes no sense, some say way too often, and some don’t know what it means.
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What does “Whether or not” mean?
“Whether or not” means that the outcome has already been decided, it is no longer dependent on any factors. Whether you want to, what the weather’s like, who’s there, is irrelevant.
Something will happen, and there is nothing that can be done to change it.
In this article, I want to take a look at where “whether” comes from, how “whether or not” can be used in a sentence, if “or not” is needed, and why we like to use it so much.
Etymology of “Whether”
Etymology might not strike everyone as very important; however, we can get a better idea of what they mean and why we say them by understanding where words come from.
In Old English, the word was hwæðer, and please don’t ask me how to pronounce that because I don’t know either.
In Proto-Germanic, the word was gihwatharaz, again, don’t ask me how to pronounce it.
The full etymology of “Whether” is a long and interesting one. I don’t have time to get into here. However, I would recommend researching it.
Whether vs Weather: Is there a difference?
“Whether” is an excellent example of what we call a homophone. Two words that sound the same but have different meanings.
When spelt “Whether”, we’re talking about the conditional conjunction with a similar meaning to “depending”.
However, when split “weather”, we’re talking about temperature, and what’s falling from the sky. The weather can be hot, cold, rainy, snowing, sunny, foggy.
You could even use the two in the same sentence, such as the phrase “It depends on whether the weather is nice or not”.
I know this is off on a bit of a tangent, but please make sure to never write “weather or not” as this would be the incorrect spelling.
Do you need to include “or not”?
One issue that some critics have with the phrase “whether or not”, is that the “or not” doesn’t serve a purpose.
They would argue that “or not” is automatically implied by the word “whether”. Because of this, the “or not” doesn’t add anything to the sentence. It’s just a waste of time/space.
If I say “I don’t care whether you want to”. The fact I have left out “or not” does not alter what I am trying to say.
When “Whether or not” can be impactful
However, defendants of “whether or not” would say that even though it doesn’t convey any additional information. Language is not merely about what you say, it’s about how you say it.
Usually when someone says “whether or not you want to”, they are making it clear that the person being spoken to probably doesn’t want to do the thing. By adding the “or not”, the speaking says that despite their evident dislike of the thing, they are still going to do it.
Those two additional words can have a tremendous impact on the tone that the speaker is getting across, and the sentence becomes more emotional.
5 examples of how to use “Whether or not” in a sentence
Now, let’s take a look at how we can use “whether or not” in a sentence using five examples. These examples will help you gain a better understanding of what the phrase means, and why people might choose to use it.
“You will take the bins out. I don’t care whether or not you want to”.
In this example, the speaker is saying that her partner is to take the bins out. She’s making it clear that this is a task he does not want to do, but the bins need taking out, and he has no say in the matter.
In this situation, it’s probably safe to assume this sentence was said shortly after the two of them have an argument. She is telling him what will happen, and also that nothing will change it.
“I’m going to wear this shirt, whether or not it has a stain”.
In this example, the speaker is motivating himself rather than another person. Like the girlfriend in the previous example, he is making it clear that an outcome will happen, and any other factors are not relevant.
We could assume that it’s a shirt which he is under an obligation to wear. He needs to remind himself of how important it is for him to fulfil that obligation.
The presence of a stain would be irrelevant.
“We’re going to walk the dog. Whether or not it’s raining”.
Much like our previous example, this sentence will usually motivate the speaker rather than any potential listener. Although this will depend on who’s speaking, and several other factors.
The speaker implies that he does not want to be walking in the rain. However, his dog needs to be walked, and the fact it could rain will not change that.
Unlike our first example, this sentence would not usually be said after an argument. It’s not used as a way to be “bossy”, it’s more to be inspirational.
“Whether or not that’s true. I still don’t like him.”
This example is slightly different from the others, as the outcome will not be an action, but rather a thought. The speaker will not do anything; however, he will think something.
We might assume that the speaker has just been told some positive information about someone he dislikes. He’s not sure whether he believes it, but that’s not relevant. If it’s true, he doesn’t like him. If it’s wrong, he doesn’t like him.
This is a rather stubborn line of thinking as he’s saying “my mind has been made up. New information won’t change it”.
“Whether or not I get into Oxford, I’m studying Chemistry”.
In this example, the speaker tells the listener that one thing is more important than the other. For him, studying Chemistry is more important than studying at Oxford.
We can safely assume that even though he has applied for Oxford and is hoping to get in. His desire to study Chemistry is so strong that he will still study it even if he has to study it elsewhere.
And there we have our five examples of how to use “whether or not” in a sentence.
Alternatives to “Whether or not”
This being the English language, there is more than one correct way of saying “whether or not”, I want to take a look at just a few of them.
“Regardless”. Could be better when an impact is unnecessary, but you still want to get the point across.
“It is of no relevance”—perhaps a slightly more formal way of saying it. Most would avoid saying this as it does not suit how we would usually speak.
“I don’t care if”. Very informal, and usually said after an argument.
You can rearrange the words in “Whether or not”.
We could rearrange the words and have the same meaning, and arguably the same impact. To show you what I mean, let’s take the sentence, “We will walk the dog, whether or not it rains.”
“We will walk the dog, whether or not it rains”.
“Whether or not it rains, we will walk the dog”.
“We will walk the dog, whether it rains, or not”.
As we can see, even if we change the ordering of some of the words, even some of the clauses, the sentence keeps the same meaning. “Whether or not” has the same impact.
A rule to follow.
One rule I found was from Merriam-Webster. In this dictionary, it says “Of course, the simplest way to determine whether the “or not” can be omitted is to see if the sentence still makes sense without it.”
And of course, I can understand why some people might think this. For example, if we take the sentence, “you’re taking the bins out, whether you want to”- it doesn’t make much sense.
However, if we were to say “I don’t care whether you want to”, it makes just as much sense with or without an “or not”.
So, Merriam-Webster’s rule might be a useful generalisation but shouldn’t be followed as gospel.
Why do we say “Whether or not”?
Earlier in this article, we spoke about how the addition of an “or not” can bring more emotional impact and determination into a sentence.
And I can understand where the critics are coming from, but in my view, the critics don’t understand how language works. In most of the sentences we speak, hear, write, or read, the speaker/writer tells us more than they’re saying.
The “or not” can show anger, annoyance, determination, stubbornness. I know the English language has rules, but I believe that rules are meant to be broken. When it comes to language, tradition trumps rules.
“Whether or not” means “I don’t care what factors try to change this. This is what will happen, and it is happening”.
It can be said to motivate yourself to do something you don’t want to do. It can be used to get someone else to do something they don’t want to do. It can show just how passionate you are about something. And it can show that your mind has already been made up.
Even though it has its critics, I’m afraid the critics are not relevant when it comes to language, as it’s determined by usage, not logic.