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Rules and Preferences

There were fervent protests from readers reacting to “Old Superstitions Die Hard.” The article established that the relative pronoun that refers to people as well as to things and has done so for centuries.

Never was an essay more aptly named.

“I don’t care what all of your quoted sources say,” wrote a fiery businesswoman. “Executive-level communications candidates who use ‘that’ do not endear themselves to this veteran headhunter.” One can understand her passion—the raw anger and frustration we all feel when a principle we’ve lived by for years is exposed as an old wives’ tale.

Meanwhile, we’ll leave it to you to decide whether those responsible for the following quotations are English-challenged hacks …

  • “I am he that walks unseen.” —J.R.R. Tolkien
  • “I am he that aches with amorous love.” —Walt Whitman
  • “… children that belonged to a man I didn’t even know.” —Mark Twain
  • “A man that hath friends must shew himself friendly: and there is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother.” —King James I, the Bible, Proverbs 18:24

Another reader took issue with Kingsley Amis’s preference for the man that I spoke to rather than the man whom I spoke to—but for a different reason: “I would have written ‘the man to whom I spoke.’ ”

The gentleman who wrote this believes that prepositions should not end sentences. It’s another of the myths about English that just won’t die, right up there with “Do not split an infinitive” and “Do not begin a sentence with And.” Amis set a trap, and this person fell into it. There is no living English scholar who will defend “Do not end a sentence with a preposition,” yet the superstition is still believed by an alarming number of intelligent people.

Here is what the snarky Mr. Amis himself had to say about it: “This is one of those fancied prohibitions dear to ignorant snobs … It is natural and harmless in English to use a preposition to end a sentence with.” Amis goes on to quote H.W. Fowler, the dean of English scholars, who wrote, “The power of saying People worth talking to instead of People with whom it is worth while to talk is not one to be lightly surrendered.”

We are all entitled to our preferences—even our prejudices—but declaring them rules everyone else must live by is crossing a line.

 

Pop Quiz

Pick the correct choices. Answers are below.

1.
A) This is the man who got away with murder.
B) This is the man which got away with murder.
C) This is the man that got away with murder.

2.
A) She is not someone to whom you want to be rude.
B) She is not someone whom you want to be rude to.
C) She is not someone that you want to be rude to.
D) She is not someone you want to be rude to.

3.
A) I just saw Vada, who looks distracted.
B) I just saw Vada, that looks distracted.
C) A and B are both correct.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. A and C are both correct.
2. All choices are correct.
3. A is correct.

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Posted on Tuesday, September 16, 2014, at 1:09 pm


Old Superstions Die Hard

People that try hard usually succeed. Is that sentence grammatical? Some nitpickers say the relative pronoun that should never refer to humans. Here is an interesting piece of mail that arrived recently:

Please review your “rule” about the use of “who” and “that” when referring to persons. The use of “that” when referring to people is very poor English and, unfortunately, has become today’s vernacular. I wonder if you could review your work here, so that students are not confused. I teach graduate students and I do not permit the distinctions you are making re this particular word usage. I cannot refer my students to your site for that reason.

The writer went on to say that using that instead of who, while “common today in vernacular English,” is “still eschewed in academic writing.” If we doubted this, we were advised to consult an online site called The Purdue Owl.

That is what we did.

According to the Owl, one may substitute that for who in informal English, but who is “more common in formal written English” and is “preferred”—although the Owl does not say who prefers it. Look at the wording: “more common” and “preferred.” The Owl is conceding that even in formal usage, that sometimes replaces who.

We language fussbudgets like to demonize “today’s vernacular,” but it won’t work in this case. Many authorities past and present would beg to differ with the Owl, and with our correspondent’s assertion that that for who is “very poor English.” The Chicago Manual of Style—the publishing industry’s bible—says, “That refers to a person, animal, or thing.” In the 1990s, author and literary critic Kingsley Amis wrote that he found the man that I spoke to preferable to the man whom I spoke to. In the eighties, English scholar John B. Bremner wrote “that may refer to persons,” with no mention of formal or informal. In the seventies, the renowned editor Theodore M. Bernstein wrote, “You may say either ‘the boy that lives next door’ or ‘the boy who lives next door.’ ” In the mid-sixties—half a century ago—an eleventh-grade textbook called Warriner’s English Grammar and Composition said, “That may be used to refer to either persons or things.”

Great essayists, novelists, and poets have been substituting that for who for centuries. A famous quotation from the Gospel of John begins: “He that is without sin among you …”

Many words have been used to describe the Bible, but it’s a safe bet that “informal” is not one of them.

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Posted on Thursday, September 11, 2014, at 4:15 pm


Essential and Nonessential Elements, Part III

See what you can infer from this sentence: When my three siblings and I entered the dark house, my brother, Marky, got scared. A careful reader would know instantly that the author had one brother and two sisters.

Why? Because of the commas surrounding Marky, which tell us that the brother’s name is nonessential. The commas enable the writer to say my only brother, whose name is Marky in three words.

Suppose the writer had entered the house with three brothers. In that case, my brother got scared would not tell us enough. With more than one brother involved, the sentence would have to say my brother Marky got scared—no commas. The absence of commas makes the brother’s name an essentialelement, and it is essential because without Marky we wouldn’t know which brother the writer meant.

Along the same lines: Mark Twain published his beloved book, “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” in 1876. The commas must go; the book’s title is essential. It is undeniable that Twain wrote more than one beloved book. Without commas the sentence would say what it means: that Twain wrote many beloved books, and Tom Sawyer is one of them. If the book’s title were nonessential, then Mark Twain published his beloved book in 1876 would not be such an inadequate sentence.

Here’s a comma gaffe many inexperienced writers make: The film features the world-famous actor, Robert DeNiro. Delete the comma fencing off Robert DeNiro. It mistakenly tells the reader that the actor’s name is nonessential—but the sentence makes little sense without DeNiro’s name in it.

The terms wife and husband always require commas in sentences like this: My wife, Marie, enjoyed meeting your husband, Lucas. This is because we can have only one spouse at a time, so their first names are nonessential, supplementary information.

Note: The following sentence is an exception to the wife-husband rule above: Cuthbert Simms and wife Marie sailed to the Bahamas last weekend. No comma is called for because in that sentence wife is not a noun, but rather an adjective modifying Marie.

The rule for grandmother and grandfather is the opposite of the wife-husband rule. This sentence is correct without commas: My grandmother Bess thinks your grandfather Horace is a twit. Everyone has two biological grandmothers and two biological grandfathers, so the names Bess and Horace are essential information.

Punctuation proficiency is crucial to serious writing. Don’t take the humble little comma for granted.

 

Pop Quiz

Correct the following as needed.

1. Bertram’s wife Deluxa was late to the ball.
2. My only sister Julia left with husband Mike on their annual vacation.
3. Hedley’s cousin Jaden did not meet my grandfather, Otis, until this morning.
4. An actor, named Robert DeNiro, showed great potential in his early film, The Wedding Party.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. Bertram’s wife, Deluxa, was late to the ball. (commas added; Deluxa is nonessential)
2. My only sister, Julia, left with husband Mike on their annual vacation. (commas added because Julia is nonessential; no comma after husbandbecause it is an adjective modifying Mike)
3. Hedley’s cousin Jaden did not meet my grandfather Otis until this morning. (no commas because Jaden and Otis are essential information)
4. An actor named Robert DeNiro showed great potential in his early film The Wedding Party. (no commas because the actor’s name and the title of one of his early films are essential information)

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Posted on Tuesday, September 2, 2014, at 10:41 am


Essential and Nonessential Elements, Part II

Here is the rule again, in case you missed it: Essential elements in a sentence should not be enclosed in commas. Nonessential elements in a sentence should be enclosed by commas.

Last time, we applied the rule to clauses. Today we’ll look at essential and nonessential phrases (a phrase is two or more related words with no subject and verb).

Let’s start with this sentence: The guy seated next to me wouldn’t stop talking. There are no commas because seated next to me is an essential phrase. It identifies which “guy” we mean. Without it we’d have only The guy wouldn’t stop talking, which doesn’t tell us much.

But consider this: Ezra Blung, the guy seated next to me, wouldn’t stop talking. Because we now know the man’s name, the guy seated next to me becomes nonessential. As the commas signify, the phrase contains supplementary information, and the sentence would have the same meaning without it.

Commas are easy for some to overlook, but an omitted or out-of-place comma can change a sentence’s meaning. Here is an example: Complete the job, as directed. The comma after job tells us that the phrase as directed is nonessential. The sentence says that you have been directed to do a job, and implies that how you do it is up to you. But what if we took out the comma: Complete the job as directed. Now as directed is essential, and the sentence is saying something more severe: Do the work, and make sure you do it the way you were told to do it.

Remember that essential and nonessential are technical terms. Some authorities prefer restrictive and nonrestrictive, perhaps to avoid the sort of confusion that may result from analyzing a sentence like this: A comma, which never ends a sentence, signals a pause.

In that example, which never ends a sentence is nonessential, and the crux of the sentence is, A comma signals a pause. That is true, but a period also signals a pause. Perhaps the key difference between commas and periods is that a comma never ends a sentence.

So how could such an essential fact be termed “nonessential” in a sentence that describes a comma? It’s because we are using grammatical terminology: nonessential refers to sentence structure only.

Information essential to human understanding is often found in phrases and clauses that are technically nonessential, as seen in the comma sentence above. But that sentence would be improved by making its less important fact nonessential: A comma, which signals a pause, never ends a sentence.

Memo to fledgling writers: If you find that you’ve disclosed an essential fact in a technically nonessential phrase or clause, you may want to write a new sentence.

 

Pop Quiz

Identify and punctuate (if needed) the italicized groups of words below. Are they clauses or phrases? Are they essential or nonessential? Answers are below.

1. People demanding special treatment make me angry.
2. His brother who is a health nut runs five miles a day.
3. A friend of mine who lives in Boston loves the seafood there.
4. Alan Lomax always fascinated by roots music first recorded the bluesman Lead Belly.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. People demanding special treatment make me angry. (essential phrase, no punctuation)
2. His brother, who is a health nut, runs five miles a day. (nonessential clause, commas added)
3. A friend of mine who lives in Boston loves the seafood there. (essential clause, no punctuation)
4. Alan Lomax, always fascinated by roots music, first recorded the bluesman Lead Belly. (nonessential phrase, commas added)

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Posted on Tuesday, August 26, 2014, at 1:04 pm


Essential, but Is It Important?

Commas are tricky little devils. Anyone who wants to use them correctly will at some point encounter the terms essential and nonessential. The rule is that so-called essential elements should not be enclosed in commas. Conversely, nonessential elements require commas fore and aft.

By “elements” we mean clauses, phrases, and even single words. Today we will focus on the difference between essential and nonessential clauses (a clause always contains a subject and verb).

Consider this sentence: People who stay out in the sun too long get a bad case of sunburn. Note the lack of commas. That’s because the clause who stay out in the sun too long is essential. Without it the sentence is silly: People get a bad case of sunburn.

Look at what happens if we fence off the essential clause with commas: People, who stay out in the sun too long, get a bad case of sunburn. The commas isolate people from the clause that explains which people we are talking about. That’s as misguided as writing The book, I’m reading, is good.

Now look at this sentence: Barton Blain, who once threw a punch at the mayor, ate corn flakes for breakfast. Unlike people in the previous paragraph, Barton Blain is already specifically identified. That makes the clause who once threw a punch at the mayor nonessential, requiring commas.

Do not be distracted by this usage of essential and nonessential. That Blain assaulted an elected official is certainly surprising, even alarming, but it is not essential in the grammatical sense; it is added information, and its removal would not alter the sentence’s basic point: that Blain had corn flakes for breakfast. Maybe the writer was being grimly humorous, or was trying to shock us, or—who knows? Our only concern here is that the writer correctly used commas to set off a nonessential clause.

So anyone who would master comma usage must realize that the terms essential and nonessential have nothing to do with values or ethics and everything to do with making a sentence say what its author intends.

 

Pop Quiz

Are the following sentences punctuated properly? Answers are at the end of the newsletter.

1. The carpenter, who fixed our floor, is the one I’d recommend.
2. I’m talking about Derek Jones who climbed Mount Whitney, not Derek Jones who swam the English Channel.
3. A ten-year-old girl, who doesn’t obey her parents, is headed for trouble.

 

Pop Quiz Answers
1. The carpenter who fixed our floor is the one I’d recommend. (remove commas)
2. I’m talking about Derek Jones who climbed Mount Whitney, not Derek Jones who swam the English Channel. (CORRECT)
3. A ten-year-old girl who doesn’t obey her parents is headed for trouble. (remove commas)

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Posted on Tuesday, August 19, 2014, at 11:14 am