December 20, 2007

Whether either

It's been a time of puzzles about whether and either: a case where either is used in place of standard whether, and an assortment of coordinations, of varying levels of oddness, involving these two items.

1. Concessive eitherFirst, either for whether -- in an ADS-L posting by Phil Cleary on 9 December, intended to document a possible eggcorn (advance someone's course for advance someone's cause) but incidentally providing an instance of concessive either X or not 'whether X or not':

From a NY Times blog: "Either Hillary likes it or not, Black voters are going to wake up and I don't see them voting for Hillary in South Carolina. Hillary has not done anything to advance their course let alone understand their need."

It looks like advance ... course is a moderately common error -- an eggcorn, perhaps, or a flounder, a word confusion based on similar pronunciation (especially, in this case, in non-rhotic varieties) and overlapping meaning.  Here are a few more examples (found on 12/9):


He wanted to use pro-Norman and thus Kamajor position to advance his course. Just after few weeks, he lost the steam as the Party moved aggressively to undo ...  (link)

For me and many other rational people, Gore has all the credibility to advance his course on climate change. But his public campaign would be a chunk better ...  (link)

That day I also found plenty of hits for {"either you like it or not"} in the appropriate sense, e.g.:

All I am saying is that "it's the truth" either you like it or not.  (link)

Either you like it or not Europe will meet her destiny - sooner than later.  (link)

Well, this is my accent, and either you like it or not, it cannot be changed.  (link)

Back on subject, that article on which the comic is based on is, either you like it or not, pretty damn acurate on the behaviour of a totalitarian, ...  (link)

(You can find more examples with {"either you like it or you don't"} and other variants.)  I hadn't noticed this before, and it seems not to have caught the attention of the usage advisers, but it's definitely out there.

Now, this is not just "confusing" either and whether.  It has a basis, I think, in one of the ways you can use "either you like it or not" (equivalent to "you either like it or not"), namely to convey indifference: 'it doesn't make any difference whether you like it or not'.  (Similarly for examples with clauses other than you like it.)  That's just what whether ... or not conveys.  So either bleeds into whether's territory.

[Long digression: This would be a good place to point out that people who revile whether ... or not in complement clauses --

I don't know whether we will come or not.

because the or not is "unnecessary" (Omit Needless Words, or ONW) don't always recognize that the or not is OBLIGATORY in standard English in concessive clauses:

 Whether we come or not, you should go on with the party.
*Whether we come, you should go on with the party.

Scrupulous usage advice recognizes the distinction.  (And sensible usage advice doesn't insist on the omission of or not.  MWDEU: "this use of or not is more than 300 years old and is common among educated speakers and writers.  It is, in short, perfectly good, idiomatic English.")

A further wrinkle: there are plenty of occurrences of the non-standard truncated concessive (without the or not), e.g.:

My biscuit is gonna pop, whether you like it you not ever gonna play me motherfuckers get shot ...  (link)

I just get out a Bible and read it and whether you like it you need it ...  (link)

Whether you like it, you are 'public figures.' It's not our fault that so many TV news anchors and reporters feel special privileges of attention and fame.  (link)

we are the knowing, and whether you like it you will love us, and will genuinely believe we are good enough to sell lots of records, tour the world and ...  (link)

That would be like the truncated as far as of

As far as your ideas on this subject, I think they're nonsense.

which I've mentioned a number of times on Language Log (for instance, here).  Here we have two situations where vernacular speakers omit words because's they're needless in the context, but guardians of the standard insist that you must Include All Necessary Words (IANW).  The guardians' judgment is in fact based on social criteria -- who uses the variant, an antipathy to what's perceived as innovation -- but the criticism is couched in terms of "efficiency" (ONW) or "logic" (Two Negatives Make a Positive) or some other abstract principle.  The rationale is SECONDARY, as I termed it in my discussion of at about a while back.  Omitting needless words is ok only if you do it in tune with the prescribed standard.]

2. Correlative either ... eitherA few weeks before, inspired by the data I'll talk about in section 4 below, I looked for examples of correlative either ... either.  Searching on {"either you * or either"} on 15 November got many hits, among them:

Favorite Quote. It's a beautiful world, everyone's insane. Either you swim or either you fade.  (link)

either you believe god or either you don't.  (link)

either you win or either you loose. The possibility of buying your own land and building on there, say a house/villa/pool whatsoever is great, ... (link)

Two weeks ago I told her enough with these games and I really love you and I want you back so it's either you're in or either you're out.  (link)

For those who don't, ms warren is this songwriter who either you love or either you hate, no in between ...  (link)

I'd noticed correlative either in student writing for years.  It's non-standard, but not (so far as I can tell) proscribed in the manuals, although it would be a natural object for ONW scorn.

It's easy to see how it would arise.  The standard disjunctive correlative either ... or has an accented word, either, marking the first disjunct, but normally unaccented or in the second.  In speech you can put an accent on the or to convey that the alternatives are of equal status, but in writing that's hard to do.  Using either on both disjuncts does the trick.  Yes, it's non-standard, but it's communicatively effective, and you can see why people might like it.  (It's also likely that correlative whether, as in the next section, promotes correlative either.)

[More digressions.

In addition to disjunction marked with either, English has (of course) unmarked disjunction, as in

You're in or you're out.

Here the two disjuncts have equal status, just as conjuncts do:

You're in and I'm out.

Somewhat surprisingly, there is little antipathy towards marked disjunction in the advice manuals, though you'd expect ONW to be invoked against either.  To my mind, this is a good thing: relentless ONW legislates implicit (rather than explicit) marking of content, and this is just an irrational prejudice.  Saving a word means a lot when you're writing telegrams or writing to some limit on word counts, but in plenty of other contexts that extra word does some work.  Explicit marking is often just what you want.]

Notice that the problem with correlative either ... either is not a failure of parallelism.  From the point of view of standard English, it's TOO MUCH parallelism.

3. Correlative whether ... whether.  Formally similar to correlative either ... either is correlative whether ... whether, as in these examples Neal Whitman sent me last month:

B2B Means Back to Basics: Whether It's the Net or Whether It's Not, Business Is Business  [book title]

"Reply: Whether It's Right, Or Whether It's Written, He Just Doesn't Get It: A Reply to Gregg"  [1997 journal article in Second Language Research]

Whether you're a mother or whether you're a brother  [from the song "Stayin' Alive"]

Whether you think you can or whether you think you can't, you're right.  [attributed to Henry Ford]
Neal found these examples (all concessive) a bit edgy, but I find them fully grammatical, and in fact I generally prefer them to coordination of full clauses WITHOUT the repeated whether, like:

Whether you think you can or you think you can't, you're right.

This sentence is entirely grammatical, but I prefer the explicit marking on both disjuncts, because it gives equal status to the disjuncts.

[Yet another digression.  Either and whether have a lot in common, but the details of their distribution are significantly different.  Among these differnces is that in formal standard English either marking a first disjunct is generally optional, but whether in the same context is obligatory:

*You think you can or you think you can't, you're right.

But in informal English, such concessives are just fine.  This is another sort of implicit marking, a kind of parataxis -- one sentence glommed onto another.  Such implicit marking, which depends on the hearer or reader supplying the connection between the two bits of content, is a good thing when the people involved are generally on the same page about what's going on.

The really big point here is that it's loopy to legislate in general against explicit marking (ONW) OR implicit marking (IANW) when both are available.  Each has its own virtues, depending on the context.]

Neal's examples are all concessives, but correlative whether is equally at home in complements:

I don't know whether he died or whether he's still working.  (link)

I don't know whether he was joking or whether he was serious.  (link)

Jack starts to wonder whether he's being paranoid or whether things are not quite what they seem.  (link)

Researchers have not yet answered whether beets produce geosmin themselves, or whether it is produced by symbiotic soil microbes living in the plant.  (link)

4. Correlative subjects.  Now we get to some possibly WTF coordinations.  It all started when I heard the following:

In the meantime, it's far from clear whether the marketplace or whether global warming will win the race. In Bio-Town USA, I'm Sam Eaton for Marketplace.  ("Home-grown energy independence",  American Public Media's Marketplace 11/13/07)

(This was the impetus for my investigations in section 3, which in turn took me to the stuff in section 2.)

On 14 November I googled up a few more examples, among them:

"But I don't know whether you, or whether any one, can assist me."  (link)

You had a particular concern in April 1989 as to whether you or whether Titan would be paying the full cost or part of the cost of travel per charter from ...  (link)

These have correlative SUBJECTS marked with whether, in a Right Node Raising (RNR) configuration that goes beyond the ordinary, since it groups together a subordinator whether with the subject of its associated complement clause, as against the VP of that clause; the disjuncts are not constituents.

There are similar examples with other introductory WH elements (some involving disjunction, some conjunction):

what:  But, in the end, it really doesn't matter what I or what you think, it only matters what Best Buy and/or Comcast and/or Hughes, or your neighbor thinks, ...  (link)

when:  So when you, and when I, come to God, have we many things that we could say to Him, so many things in fact that He must hear from us and be certain exactly ...  (link)

where:  In other words, where you and where I fit into the grand scheme of "it all." The picture we have of God is still out of focus.  (link)

who:  ... its never entirely stable and this is where the pain of not really knowing who you or who they really are comes in, it grows dimmer and darker.  (link)

And with if:

... or if an Australian security force detains an individual for whatever reasons to do with terrorism, if you, or if I report that, that we can go to jail ...  (link)

... and if he or if she doesn't come in every day, here's the Labour Code -- non-culpable dismissal," or "You're a nice lady, ...  (link)

And with that:

... wouldn't be around, if they did not have an enormous amount of raw survival tactics that you and that I would describe in very entrepreneurial ways.  (link)

(I haven't found any examples with either or with subordinating conjunctions like although and because.)

Non-constituent disjuncts/conjuncts are just what we expect in RNR: in

... give money to, and/or take support from, the party

the object NPs money and support are grouped together with a preposition associated with another argument of their verbs, even though the two don't make a syntactic constituent.  RNR is like that.

My first reaction to the whether examples was to shrink back, and probably many people will find them unacceptable.  But I've grown to find these RNR examples that "cut into" clauses not so bad at all.  As far as I can tell, the advice literature hasn't noticed them.  (How would the manuals label them?  They're certainly not failures of parallelism -- once again, they are in a sense more parallel than they'd have to be -- though they could of course be faulted as violations of ONW, if you care passionately about omitting every single omissible word.)

5. Bonus WTF coordination.  And now a real WTF coordination case (involving disjunction, so there's a tenuous tie to the preceding sections), from Bob Ray on 21 November:

Do you or your spouse have or applied for Medicare?    ___yes  ___no.  [on a retirement form from the State of Minnesota]

Ray noted that there was plenty of room on the form for a more complete sentence, in particular:

Do you or your spouse have or [have you or your spouse] applied for Medicare?    ___yes  ___no.

That is, the have is functioning both as a main verb (have Medicare) and as an auxiliary, in the perfect construction (have applied for Medicare).

This looks like a one-off error, the result of pasting together two formulations of related ideas, with have as the hinge, much as in the Elmore Leonard quotation Mark Liberman posted about earlier today:

Joe Aubrey thought he knew what Walter had in mind, but no idea how he'd pull it off.

The other cases I looked at above are systematic -- though maybe non-standard or in the gray area between standard and non-standard -- and not inadvertent errors.

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at December 20, 2007 10:30 PM