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Words, Dec. 24

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Since you ask …

Steve Taylor asks whether or not we need whether or not: “A national news anchor on TV touted a report ‘on whether or not cell phones cause brain damage.' If he'd left out the or not, I'd still have understood his intent.”

Garner's Modern American Usage says the or not is usually superfluous, since whether implies or not.  But, Garner adds, “the or not is necessary when whether or not means ‘regardless of whether,' ” as in “The meeting will go on whether or not it rains.” Taylor's anchorperson could well have omitted or not.

Garner says the belief that a whether always needs an or not, is a “superstition.” He lists a number of such superstitions, including “Never begin a sentence with and or but,” “Never use you in referring to your reader” and “Never use since to mean because.”

 

Curse of the Cat People:

“I saw a TV listing for ‘Cougar Town' and I turned it on because I thought it would be a nature program. But there were no animals in the show at all. What's the deal?” — Moe Orless

Coincidentally, just about the time Mr. Orless was writing his letter, I received a copy of an article from the New York Observer titled “Cougars! Cubs! Panthers! Oh My!” Like the television program, the article was not about animals, but about certain usage and behavior found in New York, at least, if not elsewhere. According to the author, a cougar is a sexually predatory woman of a certain age, say 40ish; cubs are the young men she preys on. A cheetah is a younger cougar — 25 or so. There was also mention of a puma, who is apparently somewhere between a cougar and a cheetah.

Some female readers were highly unimpressed by the article, including a local authority I consulted. Cougar is just a variation of a much older word applied pejoratively to women, she said, and another example of women being maligned for conduct that's considered acceptable if not praiseworthy in men.      

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