Sunday, July 1, 2007

A pencil post, whether or not you like it

As regular readers know, I'm not a huge fan of the proofreaders at W, the publishers I do a lot of work for. They each have their separate failings. J, the one who has (very poorly) proofread the Philippine accounting standards book I lightly edited, has the failing of wanting to edit instead of proofread. Okay, I do understand the temptation, because I sometimes proofread and am affronted by poor editing. But I resist it, and so should J.

When I say "lightly edit", I mean I removed only the most egregious errors, as instructed. I did not improve or embellish the text one bit. J wanted many improvements, and I sympathise with him somewhat, but it was way outside his brief to suggest them.

Here's an example, which provides an interesting point in English:

"Therefore, judgement has to be applied on a case-by-case basis to assess whether individual contracts qualify as onerous contracts under the standard."

J wondered whether I should add "or not" after "whether". I should not. It would be wrong to do so. Why? Because "whether" means "whether or not", or more closely, I suppose, it means "whether it is the case that". It does not presuppose a positive answer. This is clearer in sentences like "I asked whether he was coming".

There are, of course, cases in which "or not" is not only correct but obligatory. Look at: "I like you whether you like me or not".

What is the difference? In the first type of sentence, "whether" introduces a case by conjoining one of its outcomes; in the second, "whether" gives the two outcomes. In the second case, they are usually positive and negative, but they don't need to be: you can say "I don't know whether to choose football or cricket". In the first case, the case given must be positive and the elided alternative, its negative: "I don't know whether I like football (or not)".

"I like you whether you like me or not" is the same type of sentence as "I don't know whether to choose football or cricket" not "I don't know whether he will come".

Of course, in speech, and in many people's writing, the first "whether" is pretty much interchangeable with "if". "I don't know if he will come" is very common. You cannot say *"I like you if you like me or not" though. "I like you if you like me" is not the same thing at all, because in that sentence "if" means "only if", and "whether" can never mean "only in one case".

I could draw all sorts of dinky diagrams to prove all this, but I can't be bothered. It's enough to say that it is simply wrong -- as a question of style -- to add "or not" into the first type of sentence, and wrong -- as a question of grammar -- to omit it from the second. I welcome comments from those interested, whether they agree...

2 Comments:

Anonymous high-in-the-sky said...

Here's an example, which provides an interesting point in English:

"Therefor, judgement has to be applied on a case-by-case basis to assess whether individual contracts qualify as onerous contracts under the standard."

So how come your proofreader didn't want to add an 'e' to the end of therefore?

I seem to be having a lot of strikes on the letter e lately :)

July 2, 2007 at 12:22 AM  
Anonymous Dr Zen said...

"So how come your proofreader didn't want to add an 'e' to the end of therefore?"

He was far too busy making corrections I didn't need to bother with the ones I did.

July 2, 2007 at 9:01 AM  

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