February 7, 2013

Weekly Language Usage Tips: No problem & question of whether or question whether

Posted in no problem, whether/of whether at 6:25 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: No problem

A reader writes:

Do you have any interest in addressing the response, “No problem,” following someone’s “Thank you”?

Sure, but I am not sure the reader is going to like my answer, which is this: I have no problem with ‘no problem.’

People get really bent of shape when it comes to the use of ‘no problem’ as an alternative to ‘you’re welcome.’ It harkens the end of western civilization to many. And to many, it actually has a negative connotation, and its use is a sign of bad manners.

Here are some of the comments that I read:

‘No problem’ as a response to thank you offends me every time. It just strikes me as an insult, or insolence, or indolence: “Don’t bother to thank me, because what I have done was no problem for me (otherwise I probably wouldn’t have done it for you).”

The use of ‘no problem’ implies there may have been a problem.

For the record, I find the phrase ‘no problem’ equivalent to ‘whatever,’ both of which connote to me a disrespectful attitude of indifference.

What I hate about ‘no problem’ (or its counterpart ‘no worries’) is that it’s so lacking in any sense of graciousness. But then, people who use the phrase ‘no problem’ don’t use the word ‘gracious’ much, do they?

 It [saying ‘no problem’] is a power trip used to establish dominance.

The person may intend this response to mean the same as more ‘formal’ (correct) responses, but subconsciously he or she is communicating some level of inconvenience. This is definitely inappropriate and makes the thanks-giver feel like he or she wasted his breath.

The problem with ‘no problem’ is that it’s two negative words: ‘no’ and ‘problem.’

That odd reply [no problem] implies that there might have been a problem; lucky for me there was not or the service would never have been rendered. It also seems to leave something unsaid: “I am busy but I consent to help.” Or maybe: “you jerk.”

Wow. And I could go on and on and on. Seriously, this is the most contentious  and controversial language issue that I have ever encountered, and that’s saying something. When I googled ‘no problem as a response to thank you,’ I got more than 90 million hits. 90,000,000!

People get emotional about language, and ‘no problem’ is certainly a hot spot for many. However, I think that the people represented by the comments, here, are overthinking the language a bit and attributing a meaning to the words that isn’t intended. When I say, ‘no problem’ in response to someone’s thanks, I mean ‘think nothing of it; it was really no problem, or I was happy to do this for you.’ It is not at all a put down or a subtle play for dominance (really?), and I am certainly not considering the person thanking me ‘a jerk’ (you’re kidding, right?) nor am I talking with disdain or scorn (seriously?).

Now, I’m not saying that ‘no problem’ is a better or preferred response than ‘you’re welcome’—it is just an alternative.

And while grammarian Garner thinks ‘you’re welcome’ is on its way out:

The currency of You’re welcome seems to diminish little by little, but steadily. Old-fashioned speakers continue to use it, but its future doesn’t look bright.

 I disagree. I think both expressions have merit and will be around for some time.

Tip 2: Question of whether or question whether

A reader writes:

Just read this sentence in a legal text:

“Very often the question whether the particular conduct is within the scope of the consent . . .”

It caught my eye because I would write “Very often the question of whether the particular conduct is with the scope of the consent . . .”  Or sometimes I might say “question as to whether”

And yet when I do, I’m always concerned that it doesn’t sound quite right.

Which is the correct way or are all three correct?

My first thought was that the reader was correct in his choices, and the quote was incorrect. Well, that’s why we use references—when I looked this up, I found that the quote was indeed correct. The reader was not incorrect in his alternatives, but the ‘of’ and ‘as to’ are not necessary to the meaning, and, as a general rule, we should get rid of any words that aren’t necessary. Garner calls  ‘of’ and ‘as to’ in this context “minor prolixities.”

[NOTE: Prolixity is excessive wordiness.]

Fowler, never one to mince words, had this to say about ‘as to whether’:

in such forms as Doubts are expressed as to whether, the ‘as to’ is not incorrect, but merely repulsive.

So let’s try to avoid being ‘merely repulsive,’ and omit the extraneous words.

And just as a reminder—we’ve talked about it before—‘whether’ contains an implicit ‘or not,’ so in most instances, ‘or not’ can be omitted.

Also, remember that when used in the idiom, ‘regardless of,’ the ‘of’ is not superfluous and must be used.

Regardless of whether the hypothesis is proven, the results should be interesting.

So, the question whether it is okay to say ‘question whether’ instead of ‘question of whether’ or ‘question as to whether’ is finally answered.

[NOTE: Gosh, it still sounds wrong to me, but, trust me, this is correct.]


1 Comment »

  1. Warsaw Will said,

    In most cases “or not” can be omitted, yes, but that doesn’t make its use incorrect, as some people seem to think. It’s an established idiomatic use, with a long and illustrious history. And whether people like it or not, sometimes that “or not” is essential, as in the first part of this sentence.

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