David M. Brown's Blog

June 1, 2011

To use the correlative conjunction correctly or whether not to use it…

Filed under: Editorial services,Language and grammar,Writing — davidmbrowndotcom @ 9:06 pm

When using the correlative conjunction “whether…or,” it is unnecessary, redundant, confusing and heinous to repeat the word “whether” as if the correlative were in fact “whether…or whether.” This is easy to see when the alternative is expressed briefly. “I don’t care whether you stay or go, but make up your mind.” “It was unclear whether the heavy fighting would be limited to the capital or would engulf the country.”

Why the “whether” warning? Well…

But a powerful general who defected to the opposition in March has continued to keep his troops on the sidelines, leaving open the question of whether the heavy fighting would be contained to areas of the capital, Sana, and several other cities, or whether it could engulf the country.

This passage from a New York Times story should say, instead:

But a powerful general who defected to the opposition in March has continued to keep his troops on the sidelines, leaving open the question of whether the heavy fighting would be limited to areas of the capital, Sana, and several other cities, or would engulf the country.

Two other problems in the sentence are also corrected in my edited version.

First, I chucked what seems to me an unidiomatic use of the transitive verb “contain.” One doesn’t say “contained to.” Except that many writers do, judging by the number of Google results for the phrase “contained to”: 1,190,000. Thus, we discover that a fire is “contained to” a bedroom, a virus is “contained to” Salt Lake, even that the mind is “not contained to the cranium.” What constitutes idiomatic expression is a matter of linguistic convention, which must be learned, and which can change (for good reasons or bad). So maybe I’m wrong; in which case I hope that any errors in this blog post are contained to this paragraph, or at least confined to or restricted to or limited to it. (Of course, if you go by Google’s canvass of actual usage, you’ll start to wonder whether “it’s” is indeed a contraction of “it is.” It is. And it sure don’t do double-duty as a possessive.)

Second, the word “could” in the author’s phrase “could engulf” is an unwarranted breach of parallelism. The Times reporter presents an alternative between relatively confined fighting on the one hand and country-engulfing fighting on the other. The construction as it stands already implies that either is a possibility; one needn’t then resort to the word “could” when presenting the second alternative as if wondering not only whether that second alternative will happen but whether it even can happen. (Similarly, one says “I don’t know whether you will stay or go,” not “I don’t know whether you will stay or can go.” Unless the person is in chains, it is understood that he can go.) Nor, in the constructions we’re looking at, would one use the word “could” for both halves of the alternative; one would not say “It was unclear whether the heavy fighting could remain limited to the capital or could engulf the country.” Obviously, it is obvious that either could happen—but whether either could happen is not what a reporter or anybody else is wondering about. We wonder what will actually happen. Which is what the reporter’s sentence suggests, or should suggest.

[Cross-posted to The Technofatuous Blog.]

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