Whether or Whether or Not?

As an editor, one of my duties is to tighten someone’s writing, to get rid of extraneous fluff that adds nothing more than word count.

Though I could make an extensive list…I’ll confine myself to just this one pet peeve: Whether or not.

Do you really need the or not after whether? In most instances, no. The or not is just fluff begging to be edited out.

Take a look at this:

I didn’t know whether or not you would come home tonight.

What am I really concerned about here? Whether you would come home at all is what I’m concerned about, so the or not is extraneous. So, the correct form would be:

I didn’t know whether you would come home tonight.

In the next example, whether you come home or whether you don’t come home is equally important. You have a task to complete either way.

Text me whether or not you are going to come home tonight.

Had I said: Text me whether you are coming home tonight, I would only expect a text if you were coming home, not if you weren’t.

Do you see the difference?



Gray or Grey?

I was teaching an ESL* class not too long ago, and we came upon a word that confused people. The word was “gray.”

Some folks, especially those who liked to drink Earl Grey tea, insisted that grey was the correct spelling. And in some countries, it is. In fact, grey is the preferred spelling for our cousins across the pond (and north of the border).

But, as I tactfully told everyone, we’re in America now. In America, the correct spelling is gray. Just look on any Crayola crayon if you don’t believe me.

My high school refresher grammar teacher, Alfrava Latham, had a great trick to help those of us who read a lot of English classics remember which spelling is correct.

Gray has an A in it; America starts with an A.

Grey has an E in it; England starts with an E.

My class understood quickly. I hope you do, too.

*ESL is the acronym for English as a second language.


Double That

Nothing takes me out of the flow of a story faster than an ill-constructed sentence. When I was reading the other evening, I came across a sentence with a double that in it. Now, even though double thats often are correct, especially when spoken, they are usually very awkward when read. I have had more than one English teacher in my past pound into my head that writing a sentence with a double that construction was just plain lazy writing and a rewrite was in order.

I think the problem is the word that can be so many different parts of speech.

  • That can be a conjunction: It’s a matter of opinion that pitchers should ice their arms after every baseball game. (Correct.)
  • That can be an adjective: Bring that pitcher some ice for his arm! (Correct.)
  • It’s a matter of opinion that that pitcher actually needs to ice his arm after the baseball game. (Correct, but ill-constructed.)
  • It’s a matter of opinion pitchers need to ice their arms after every baseball game. (Correct, but better.)

Now, that can also be an adverb and a pronoun, so be careful when constructing your sentences. When in doubt, read your sentence aloud. See if you even need that in the sentence.

More examples:

  • That as a demonstrative pronoun (not following a noun) — Who gave you that?
  • That as a relative pronoun (forms the subject, object, or complement or a relative clause) — Baseball’s a game that my mother taught me.
  • That as an adverb (before an adverb or adjective) — I can’t wait that long.
  • That as a determiner (followed by a noun) — Give me that bat.




Stationary vs. Stationery

English can be such a tricky language to learn as I discovered when I was teaching an ESL (English as a Second Language) course not too long ago. We have so many words that sound exactly alike but are spelled differently and mean entirely different things.

One word that tripped up people in my ESL class was stationary. The majority of the class knew about the one with the ary ending but not about the ery ending, so I was marking up papers left and right. They thought the word that conveyed something was standing still was the same word that conveyed the type of letterhead a person was choosing. But that’s just not the case.

Let me give you an example, (and I have a great trick to help you remember which is correct):

  • The soldier remained stationary even through the rainstorm.
  • The stationery I chose for my business is beautiful.

In the first sentence, I describe someone standing still, so ary is the ending of choice. I the second sentence, I describe a paper product, hence the ery ending is used.

The easy way to remember which ending to use is to remember that stand has an a in the word as does stationary, and paper has an e in it just as stationery does.

I truly wish I could remember which English teacher taught me that trick because he or she deserves credit, but I’m drawing a blank when I try to think back. I hope this trick sticks with you as it has stuck with me for so many years.

Double “Is”

I had an interesting debate with my better half the other day. He seems to think that a double “is” is correct when used with phrases such as, “The reason is is…” or “The problem is is…”  or “The question is is…“.

Is that what you think, too?

Well, hate to be the one to break it to you, but the rarified time a double “is” is correct is when you’re using it like I just did or when the second “is” starts a question.

Let me give you some examples. (Read these aloud to yourself.)

The point is is I would like you to stop using a double is. — Incorrect.

The point is I would like you to stop using a double is. — Correct.

The question is, is a double is correct in this sentence? — Correct. (And, yes, it’s correct.)

There’s an easy way to get yourself to stop using a double is. It’s really about what word you’re emphasizing in the sentence.

In the first example, if you had read it aloud, you would have found that you emphasized the first “is” and then said the second “is” almost like an echo. There was almost a hesitation to make the point of the sentence.

In the second example, the emphasis was on “point.” There was no hesitation about making the point of the sentence.

In the third example, the heaviest emphasis was on “question,” and then you breezed through to make the point of the sentence.

Does that help?



Who vs. Whom

I had a couple of great English teachers in high school, one of whom was Miss Latham. Miss Alfrava Latham. She was a character.  She hand-made her clothes, wore black patent leather shoes with a square silver buckle that looked like something a Pilgrim would wear and loved to read cookbooks. She was also a tough, tough teacher.

Tough, but clear. She always had little tricks for us to remember some of the more difficult rules of grammar. One that I use to this day is one that helps me tackle the who vs. whom problem.

There’s an easy way to remember when you should use either word. Ask yourself if you could hypothetically answer your question with him. Let me give you an example:

Who/Whom should we invite to the study group? Since you could hypothetically answer the question with, “We should invite him,” whom would be the correct word choice.

Who/Whom is invited to the study group? The answer to this question is, “He is going to the study group,” not, “Him is going to the study group,” so the correct word choice is who.

Need an even easier way to remember which is correct? Whom and him end in m. If you can answer the question with him, you know the correct word choice is whom.

If you must know the reason this trick works, it’s because the answer you give to the above-type questions helps you determine whether the pronoun refers to an object. Him is an object pronoun. Think of yourself pointing out the person (him) as though he was an object. If you can’t do that, then who is correct.

I don’t know what’s happened with Miss Latham since my high school days, but I do know that what she taught me stuck with me.

If this post has helped you, give a little look skyward and say a quick, “Thank you,” to Miss Latham.



Bad vs. Badly

I am not one who sits idly by when someone (or someone’s writing) sounds pretentious. I tend to, well, correct. It’s my nature. (Actually, it’s probably not my nature because my grandmother, the 1920s secretary, and my mother, the genius, were always correcting us kids whenever we used incorrect words.)

Aaaaanyway, I don’t like pretention. And to me, few words sound more pretentious than “badly” when it is used, well, badly.

Let me give you an example: I feel badly about that. Really, I do.

No, actually, you feel bad about that, whatever that is.

As a rule, “bad” is an adjective that describes or modifies nouns and pronouns. They show how something was or is, provide additional information such as size, shape, and color. Example: My commute to the stadium was bad.

And “badly” is an adverb that, you guessed it, modifies verbs because most verbs are action verbs. Adverbs can be a single word or a set of words that answer how, why, when, where, to what extent, how often, or how much. For example: When I saw my hair in the mirror this morning, I realized I badly needed a trim.

There is an exception for badly, and this is where people start to sound pretentious. If you have linking verbs like be, is, and was, the form to use is bad, not badly. (See the first example.)

Some linking verbs, like smell and feel, can also be linking or action verbs. Here, you’d also use bad rather than badly.

How would that look?

Karen felt around badly because her hands were covered in grease.

The air smelled bad.