In an eerie coincidence, two acquaintances almost simultaneously sent me e-mail messages that concerned the proper use of whether. One suggested that my use of whether should have been if. The other wondered if the phrase whether or not contains two unnecessary words.

Let’s consider these issues in turn. First, whether vs. if.

Garner’s Modern American Usage, one of the best resources on grammatical matters, advises:

“It’s good editorial practice to distinguish between these words. Use if for a conditional idea, whether for an alternative or possibility. Thus, Let me know if you’ll be coming means that I want to hear from you only if you’re coming. But Let me know whether you’ll be coming means that I want to hear from you about your plans one way or the other.”

Now for the second question: Is the or not in whether or not superfluous?

Garner and other grammarians say that it usually is. For example, in the sentence “A new test can predict whether or not a relationship will last,” the words or not can be deleted because the word whether implies or not.

But in some cases, the or not is necessary. Consider this sentence: “The show will go on whether or not the star is ill.” Here, the or not is clearly required. Alternatively, the sentence could be rephrased as “The show will go on regardless of whether the star is ill.”

Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant for more than 30 years. He may be best known for his headline “Speak Spanish [French, German, etc.] Like a Diplomat!” This familiar series of ads sold spectacular numbers of recorded foreign language lessons for Audio-Forum, generating revenues that total in the tens of millions of dollars. In the process, the ad achieved the status of an industry classic. Don’s work is mentioned in three major college advertising textbooks, and examples of his promotions are cited in the books Million Dollar Mailings (1992) and World's Greatest Direct Mail Sales Letters (1996). In a column in Advertising Age, his name was included in a short list of direct-marketing “superstars.” He has a parallel career as a writer on language and wordplay. His celebration of spoonerisms, Cruel and Unusual Puns (Dell, 1991), received rave reviews and quickly went into a second printing. His second book was Acronymania (Dell, 1993). Recently, Don retired from full-time copywriting in order to focus on other interests, including his passion for “recreational linguistics.” He is at work on a new book in that genre. He is a regular contributor to the magazine Word Ways and writes “The Language Perfectionist,” a weekly column on grammar and usage, for Early to Rise. Don is author of The Versatile Freelancer,an e-book from American Writers and Artists, Inc. (AWAI) that shows copywriters – and almost anyone – how to diversify their careers into consulting, training, critiquing, and speaking.

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