December 11, 2008

Weekly Language Usage Tips: hyphens, whether or not

Posted in hyphen, hyphen/compound words, whether or not at 8:32 am by dlseltzer

Sightings

There are a number of mailing lists out there featuring a daily word. I get a few of these, such “so what’s the good word?” and “a word a day” and dictionary.com’s “word of the day.” Of these, “a word a day” (wordsmith.org) is by far the most interesting although don’t expect to use the words you learn there on a daily basis. While looking at yesterday’s “good word,” I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry. Check out the second definition for resplendent, below. Is this what dictionaries are coming to? Awesomely glorious? Oh my.

o resplendent o
Pronunciation: re-splen-dênt
Part of Speech: Adjective
Meaning: Exhibiting dazzling splendor, awesomely glorious, breathtaking in lavishness.

Tip 1: hyphens in compound nouns and adjectives

This tip was written up a while ago, but the issue I want to address may have been lost in the long discussion of hyphens. I will keep this simple and to the point. There are no hard and fast rules about using compounds, but there definitely are conventions. This is the convention that I recommend. When using a compound as a noun, omit the hyphen. When using a compound as an adjective, hyphenate the word. I’ve noticed a lot of confusion about this lately which is why I thought it was worth a second mention.

Example 1:

The concerns of the patient and the family need to be taken into account when providing end-of-life care.

It is often useful to involve physicians with experience in palliative care when providing care at the end of life.

Example 2:

The medical decision-making process is very complex.

Formal rules for medical decision making would improve treatment recommendations.

Tip 2: whether? Or not?

As a child, I was taught to use ‘or not’ whenever I used ‘whether.’ For example,

I’m going to play the clarinet whether or not you come to the concert.

I don’t know whether or not to go away on vacation just now.

This is a very tough habit to break but the truth is that you don’t always have to use ‘or not’ with ‘whether.’ A useful rule of thumb is that: if you are using ‘whether’ to mean ‘if,’ you don’t need ‘or not.’ The ‘or not’ is implied.

I don’t know if I should go to the movies this afternoon. correct

I don’t know whether I should go to the movies this afternoon. correct

I don’t know whether or not I should go to the movies this afternoon. correct

If ‘whether’ is being used to mean ‘regardless of whether,’ the ‘or not’ is necessary.

I’m going to eat the last slice of pizza regardless of whether anyone else wants it. correct

I’m going to eat the last slice of pizza whether or not anyone else wants it. correct

I’m going to eat the last slice of pizza whether anyone else wants it. incorrect

A quick aside: before using ‘if’ to replace ‘whether,’ consider whether the ‘if’ makes the meaning of the sentence ambiguous. ‘If’ can imply uncertainty while ‘whether’ implies alternatives. For example,

The waiter asked if I liked Italian or French food.

The sentence could be read to mean which of the two cuisines were liked or if either cuisine was liked at all.

Next week, I’ll explain why I used ‘were’ instead of ‘was’ in the first part of the above sentence.

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