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Wondering vaguely how many elves had now been set free whether they wanted to be or not, Harry uncorked his ink bottle, dipped his quill into it, then held it suspended an inch above the smooth yellowish surface of his parchment, thinking hard ... but after a minute or so he found himself staring into the empty grate, at a complete loss for what to say.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

I don't quite understand the grammar of that part. I feel it should be: Wondering vaguely how many elves had now been set free and whether they wanted to be or not... But not sure if I got it right. How should we understand it?

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If you include the conjuction "and", it seems that Harry is wondering about TWO questions

  • a) how many elves had now been set free
  • b) whether they wanted to be or not

But it's just ONE question or matter

how many elves had now been set free

The clause "whether they wanted to be or not" is stating that elves' opinion is irrelevant when you have to estimate how many of them had been set free.

According to the Oxford Dictionary

whether

1.2 Indicating that a statement applies whichever of the alternatives mentioned is the case.
I'm going whether you like it or not

According to the Cambridge Dictionary

whether...or

B1 (used to introduce two or more possibilities) it is not important if:
Someone has to tell her, whether it's you or me.

  • I think the key is the use of 'whether' here. I found this dictionary definition fit this context: "used to say that something definitely will or will not happen whatever the situation is". The use of matter is more like "no matter" perhaps. I might have answered my own question. :) – dan Feb 6 at 11:26
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    Ok, but I've already mentioned it: "whichever the alternatives" is equivalent to "whatever the situation" in you definition. In your exact context, as SamBC has mentioned, it probably means that Hermione is not asking the elves before setting them free. – RubioRic Feb 6 at 11:34
  • oh Yes, your explanation is also correct! Thanks! – dan Feb 6 at 11:38
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It's a funny little construction, there. "whether they wanted to be or not" is, grammatically, a restrictive clause. However, because it logically refers to all cases, it is not practically restrictive. Such 'restrictive' "whether X or not" clauses are used to emphasise the fact that the characteristic referred to does not matter. I mean, it might matter to the people involved, but it doesn't matter in terms of the clause being 'restricted'. This is often used to refer to something that doesn't matter to someone else, and pass judgement on it. In this case, Harry is being somewhat judgemental, I think, about Hermione's attempt to trick house-elves into being freed.

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