September 13, 2012

Weekly Language Usage Tips: Grow the economy & whether or whether or not

Posted in grow the economy, whether or not at 6:59 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: Grow the economy? Good grammar?

A reader writes:

Recently, I have listened to a lot of politicians talking about ‘growing the economy,’ and I really hate the expression. It is very grating and unappealing. What do you think?

I find it grating, too, and I wouldn’t use it, but let me quickly say that it is correct grammatically. My aversion to it is just a matter of personal taste. The critics say the word ‘grow’ should not take a direct object (i.e., it is an intransitive verb).

That young girl is growing up quickly, isn’t she?

The corn grows very high in the late summer.

But that’s just silly. We use it with an object all the time (i.e., it is a transitive verb).

I was planning to grow some basil, but the summer got away from me.

When he was younger, he used to grow his hair very long.

The problem is that we are used to hearing it in the contexts above, but then we started to hear it in reference to the economy (we need to grow the economy) and industry (we need to grow the business). And this newer usage seems harsh and irritating.

Another argument against its use is that when you talk about growing crops, you are actually doing something to cause the crops to grow, but that argument falls apart with respect to growing a beard or long hair—what are you doing to cause your hair to grow?

So, let it be. If you don’t like the expression, don’t use it. And since many don’t like it, don’t use it in your writing at all.

An interesting side note: The expression, we need to grow the economy, was first coined by Bill Clinton in 1992 as he was first running for president. I recently ran across an article about the most recent Democratic convention at which Clinton made a speech that was hailed (by not only Democrats) as brilliant oratory. The article noted that Clinton deviated from his prepared script and showed the differences. I recommend reading about the changes because I think Clinton’s on the fly adlibbing nicely illustrates what elevates a good presentation into a great presentation. Here is the URL for the article:

Tip 2:  Whether or whether or not

A reader writes:

When I use the word, ‘whether,’ is it proper to write ‘or not’ after the word, ‘whether’ or not?

When I was in elementary school, and we’ve established that was back in the Middle Ages (or was it the Dark Ages?), I was taught that whenever one said or wrote ‘whether,’ one would have to say or write ‘or not.’

That’s what I was taught, but that was wrong. Well, not wrong, really, but certainly not the whole answer. Here is the answer: It depends.

It depends on what, you might ask. It depends on whether it is needed for the sentence to make sense. For instance, in the last sentence, it isn’t needed. And when it isn’t needed, it is best to leave it out as superfluous language. Remember our goals of achieving simplicity and clarity.

But I have to say, when you have used ‘whether or not’ for a large part of your life, this habit is a tough one to break. I am pretty sure I have achieved it in my writing, but just this morning, I was talking to a colleague about whether or not some project required IRB approval. ARRRGH.

Oh well, I’ll keep working on it.

So when is it necessary, you might ask. It’s necessary in sentences in which ‘whether’ means ‘regardless of whether.’ When that is the meaning, you need ‘or not’ to ensure comprehension.

Whether or not we win, we are going to celebrate!

In this example, the ‘or not’ is critical to understanding the meaning. While an alternative way of writing this would be:

Whether we win or lose, we are going to celebrate!

We would never write:

Whether we win, we are going to celebrate!

So this what I mean when I say, ‘It depends.’ We’re talking grammar, after all.



  1. Rich Ward said,

    Good morning, I just came across this and would love to receive it daily. My address is:

    Many thanks.

    • dlseltzer said,

      It only comes out weekly, not daily, but I am happy to include you on the list.

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