Q: I proofread pretrial depositions for court reports. Some attorneys have the annoying habit of asking questions like “Was that xyx, or no?” My inner voice screams “or NOT!” But don’t get me started on attorneys and their ignorance of basic grammar.
A: Yes, a lot of legal usage is atrocious, but you can’t criticize lawyers for using “or no” in place of “or not.”
The use of the adverbial phrase “or no” to express “the negative in an alternative choice, possibility, etc.,” has been around since the 1300s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
The oldest example of the usage in the OED is from an early version of the Wycliffe Bible, written sometime before 1382: “Wheþer þou woldist kepe þe hestys of hym or no” (“Whether thou wouldst keep the commandments of him or no”).
Although the usage is primarily seen in “whether … or no” statements, many respected writers have used “or no” in examples similar to the one you cite.
The most recent example in the OED is from the March 3, 1988, issue of the Times (London): “He … might afterwards complain (rightly or no) that he was not given an accurate account.”
Here are some 20th-century examples from Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage:
“Laryngitis or no, the play has started off with a bang,” from a Feb. 19, 1940, letter by Alexander Woollcott.
“But personality or no, I have been aware of how much of you she was,” from an April 20, 1957, letter by E. B. White.
“Sister Mary Teresa emerges as a real human, nun or no,” from an April 1, 1984, column by Newgate Callendar (a k a Harold C. Schonberg) in the New York Times Book Review.
Merriam-Webster’s notes that several 19th-century language commentators objected to the usage, though M-W doesn’t have any objections of its own. Nor does the OED or any of the standard dictionaries or usage guides we checked.
(A post we wrote for our blog earlier this year deals with a related issue, the use of “no” as either an adjective or an adverb to make a sentence negative.)
We’ll end with an example from Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.), which cites an early 19th-century version of “Frog Went A-courting,” a nursery rhyme with roots that date back to the 16th or 17th centuries:
A frog he would a-wooing go,
Heigh-ho! says Rowley,
Whether his mother would let him or no.