Sign Up For Our Free Grammar E-Newsletter

That and Which: Rule or Guideline?

A sentence in our recent article on spelling ruffled a few readers. See if you can spot what caused the commotion: “The other errant site offered a quiz which claimed that ‘inflammation of the membrane of the brain’ is spelled ‘meningitas.’ ”

Did you catch it? Our correspondents insisted “which” was wrong and should be replaced by “that.” For those unfamiliar with the prevailing assumptions about that and which, here is an overview:

Consider the sentence It was just something that came over me. According to most sticklers, when a dependent clause (that came over me) does not require a comma to introduce it, the relative pronoun that is indicated, and which would be wrong. Such a clause is called restrictive (or essential or defining).

Now consider the sentence Joe ordered eggs and toast, which he always enjoyed. When a dependent clause (which he always enjoyed) requires a comma to introduce it, the relative pronoun which is necessary, and that would be wrong. Such a clause is called nonrestrictive (or nonessential or nondefining).

These guidelines caught the public’s attention back in 1926, when H.W. Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, the bible of modern grammar, endorsed that for restrictive clauses and which for nonrestrictive clauses. Fowler’s suggestion has become law, even though Fowler himself was never strident about his theory, writing “it would be idle to pretend that it is the practice either of most or of the best writers.”

This is the background behind the scolding we received for using a restrictive which. Nonetheless, we stand behind our sentence and would not change it.

The language scholar Geoffrey Pullum has written, “What is actually true about expert users of English … is that they use both that and which in integrated relative clauses, in proportions that aren’t very far away from being 50/50.” We could start with the King James Bible: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” Jane Austen used the restrictive which, as did Macaulay, Dickens, Melville, Conrad, Lewis Carroll, and other literary luminaries right up to the present.

William Faulkner, awarded the 1949 Nobel Prize in Literature, was a champion of the restrictive which. As an experiment we opened Faulkner’s 1932 novel Light in August to a random page and immediately found “He just stared at her, at the face which he had never seen before.” President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s stirring Pearl Harbor speech before Congress began “Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy …”

Getting back to the offending sentence that started this flap, we’ll let this passage from Wilson Follett’s Modern American Usage explain our word choice: “[There are] many instances where being forced to use that leads to an intolerable repetition of sounds.” We wrote “a quiz which claimed that” simply because we cringed at the look and sound of “a quiz that claimed that.”

Those who swear by Fowler’s rule have a formidable array of language scholars aligned against them. Here is a small sample …

“You can use which or that to introduce a restrictive clause—the grounds for your choice should be stylistic.”— Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage

“This use of which with restrictive clauses is very common, even in edited prose. Moreover, in some situations which is preferable to that.” —American Heritage Usage Panel

“No one could plausibly insist that which as a restrictive relative pronoun is indefensible or incorrect.” —Wilson Follett, Modern American Usage

“This is a canonical case of a self-appointed authority inventing a grammatical theory, observing that elite writers routinely violate the theory, and concluding not that the theory is wrong or incomplete, but that the writers are in error.” —Mark Liberman, American linguist

“Follow the Fowler rule if you want to; it’s up to you. But don’t tell me that it’s crucial or that the best writers respect it. It’s a time-wasting early-20th-century fetish, a bogeyman rule undeserving of the attention of intelligent grownups.” —Geoffrey K. Pullum, linguistics professor, University of Edinburgh

To comment on this grammar tip, click on the title.

Posted on Tuesday, March 17, 2015, at 2:36 pm


Media Watch

Here is another batch of fizzles and fumbles from dailies and periodicals.

• Headline for an editorial: “Let he who is without spin.” It’s clever, it’s glib, it’s … a disaster.

It’s supposed to be a twist on a well-known biblical verse, but that verse is routinely misquoted. Many people believe it goes like this: “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Here is the actual quotation from the Gospel of John: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” Note the wording: “let him.” That’s because “let he” is almost grammatically impossible. (No one would claim that Marie Antoinette said, “Let they eat cake.”)

• “Fear, borne of national security hysteria, can threaten Americans’ rights.” Either replace “borne” with “born” or, depending on how you interpret the sentence, replace “of” with “by.”

To be born is to be given birth to, as babies are born. Or it can mean “to be created”: ideas are born the moment we think of them.

To be borne is to be carried, transmitted, or tolerated: a mosquito-borne diseasecharges borne equally by the payer and the receiver. When you see borne of, the writer almost certainly meant born of. You are far more likely to see born of or borne by than borne of in a correct sentence.

Our staff prefers born of in the instance cited. Fear is born of—springs from or is created by—hysteria.

• “The criteria for a permit is whether the business is compatible with the impacted neighborhood.”

“The criteria is” is ungrammatical; there is no such thing as one criteria. Criteria is the plural of criteriona standard used for judging, deciding, or acting. So make it “One of the criteria for a permit is …”

But we aren’t done yet. Do not say “impacted neighborhood” when you mean “affected neighborhood.” As a verb, impact is constantly misused, and affect is almost always the remedy. To impact means “to pack tightly together,” as in an impacted tooth. That is not what the sentence is saying about this particular neighborhood.

• “She did not specify his exit date or what lead to his decision.” Make it “what led to his decision.”

Budding writers are increasingly using lead instead of led as the past tense of the verb to lead. There are three reasons for this confusion. First, lead reminds us of read, and everyone knows that the past tense of the verb to read is read. Second, the word lead, when it refers to a metal, is pronounced led, just like the past tense of the verb to lead. And third, they don’t drill spelling in schools the way they used to.

 

Pop Quiz

The following are sentences recently heard over the airwaves. See if you can spot the errors. Answers are at the bottom of the newsletter.

1. “One thing they didn’t find were bullet casings.”
2. “Were either of you kids exposed to the virus?”
3. “His family is at their wits’ end.”
4. “Last year, less than a hundred thousand Americans visited Cuba.”
5. “They want to talk to everyone with whom he may have came into contact.”

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. “One thing they didn’t find was bullet casings.”
2. “Was either of you kids exposed to the virus?”
3. “His family is at its wits’ end.” OR “His family are at their wits’ end.”
4. “Last year, fewer than a hundred thousand Americans visited Cuba.”
5. “They want to talk to everyone with whom he may have come into contact.”


To comment on this grammar tip, click on the title.

Posted on Tuesday, February 17, 2015, at 3:23 pm


Nice Publication—Until You Read It

A table by the front door of a hip Northern California restaurant is stacked with complimentary copies of a forty-three-page mini-magazine. This handsome brochure, produced by the company that manages the establishment, is printed on thick, textured paper. It’s full of sumptuous full-color photos depicting the glories of food and drink. Somebody spent a lot of time and money on this. But despite a generous budget and a staff of editors, the written content seems to be an afterthought.

The table of contents lists the wrong page for two of the magazine’s seven articles.

In an introduction, the editor-in-chief writes, “We are enamored by every inch of San Francisco,” even though enamored traditionally takes the preposition of or with. He goes on to call San Francisco “one of the most unique cities in the world.” A good copyeditor would remove “most.” All proficient editors know that unique—meaning “one of a kind”—should stand alone.

In a piece about a farmers’ market, we find “locally-sourced seafood” and “recently-opened bar.” An article about a Napa Valley honey farm refers to “strategically-placed bee hives.” Anyone who ever took Proofreading 101 knows that adverbs ending in ly should not be hyphenated. (And beehive has been one word for eight centuries.)

Proofreading 101 also drills students on avoiding danglers, yet this booklet is teeming with them. In an article about a seafood merchant named Joe, we read this: “Based in San Francisco, Joe’s fish can be found on dozens of menus.” (Joe is based there, not the fish.) A few pages later we find, “Open for breakfast and lunch, you can get the best eggs in the city …” (This inept sentence says that “you” are open for breakfast and lunch.)

Other gaffes range from clumsy to clueless. America’s “west coast” is mentioned but not capitalized. A fish’s texture is called “velvety-like,” even though velvety by itself means “like velvet.” Whoever wrote “a couple bites of leftovers” and “a couple calls came in” thinks couple is an adjective. In fact, it’s a noun, requiring of (“couple of bites,” “couple of calls”).

If a company wishes to make a good impression, you’d think fluent grammatical English would be a crucial part of the presentation.

This restaurant’s management group wouldn’t endorse serving baked orange roughy on paper plates with plastic utensils, or Russian osetra caviar on Wonder Bread slathered in Miracle Whip.

So why produce a sleek publication filled with gorgeous images, only to bring the whole thing crashing down with sloppy articles written by feckless amateurs? Maybe this inattention to detail says something dark about the company. Or maybe it’s just further evidence that clear and precise writing is becoming as outmoded and quaint as pay phones and post offices.

 

Pop Quiz
Fix any sentences that need correcting. Our answers are below.

1. The show’s lead role is played by a nationally-famous movie star.
2. Born and raised in Queens, Mr. Walken’s first education for the stage involved dance lessons.
3. The food of New Orleans is absolutely unique—and sinfully delicious.
4. We were lost until a kindly-looking man helped us find our hotel.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. The show’s lead role is played by a nationally famous movie star.
2. Mr. Walken was born and raised in Queens. His first education for the stage involved dance lessons.
3. The food of New Orleans is unique—and sinfully delicious.
4. We were lost until a kindly-looking man helped us find our hotel. CORRECT (“kindly” is an adjective here, not an adverb)

To comment on this grammar tip, click on the title.

Posted on Monday, January 26, 2015, at 5:22 pm


Get Thee to a Dictionary

A sentence in last week’s article included the phrase “disrespect or disregard you.” In short order we received mail questioning whether this use of disrespect was appropriate on a website promoting proper grammar. “Are you sure that you are okay with using ‘disrespect’ as a verb?” asked one reader.

Most of the angst over disrespect stems from the word’s popularity with putative thugs. In the words of English scholar Paul Brians in Common Errors in English Usage, “The hip-hop subculture revived the use of ‘disrespect’ as a verb.” Say no more. To many language watchdogs, hip-hop is a worst-case scenario for where English is headed.

An online search seems to confirm this. “My vote? That is not a word,” states one armchair linguist. “No one should use it.” An iffy Internet dictionary called Wiktionary (compiled by anonymous contributors with undocumented credentials) has this to say: “ ‘Disrespect’ is not a verb. ‘Respect’ can be used as a noun or a verb, however ‘disrespect’ should only be used as a noun.”

But note that Brians said “revived.” We consulted our brand-new 2014 Webster’s New World (Fifth Edition) and found disrespect listed as a transitive verb meaning “to have or show lack of respect for.”

Hold it, you say. Webster’s is notoriously permissive. Perhaps its editors’ inclusion of disrespect as a verb merely reflects the company’s longtime policy of publishing a nonjudgmental, up-to-date record of how people communicate.

So we turned to Random House’s 1968 American College Dictionary, and sure enough, there it was: “to regard or treat without respect.” We also found disrespect listed as a verb in the oldest dictionary in our office, a 1941 edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary.

Our last stop was the Oxford English Dictionary (which has been called “the ultimate authority on the English language”). Here we discovered that disrespect as a verb first appeared in print around 1614—four centuries ago.

We believe that those who are serious about language matters should have at least two dictionaries within easy reach: a contemporary one—many are available online—but also one that is at least thirty years old. (You can get one if you really want it.) Although having your own Oxford English Dictionary would also be nice, its twenty gargantuan volumes take up a lot of space … and cost a lot of money. However, the Online Etymology Dictionary (etymonline.com) is a terrific alternative.

This episode proves once again that what people feel to be indisputable about proper English all too often says more about them and their biases than about the issue at hand.

To comment on this grammar tip, click on the title.

Posted on Wednesday, January 21, 2015, at 3:51 pm


Words in Flux

Today we’ll discuss two words whose meanings in casual conversation may vary significantly from their traditional meanings in formal writing.

Despise Not so long ago, despise was more than just another word for detest. “Syme despised him and slightly disliked him,” wrote George Orwell in his 1949 novel 1984. Orwell knew that, strictly speaking, despise means “to look down on” but not necessarily “to dislike” (although that’s usually part of the deal).

“Let no one despise your youth” reads a line in the Bible (1 Timothy 4:12). Note that “despise your youth” does not mean “hate you for being young.” The passage means, “Don’t let anyone disrespect or disregard you for being young.” Disdain is not the same as downright hostility.

Affinity Some seven hundred years ago, affinity meant “relation by marriage.” By extension, the proper use of affinity involves mutuality. But that sense of mutual attraction is often absent in contemporary uses of affinity. An online search reveals many examples such as these: “She always had an affinity for growing fruit.” “I have an affinity for vintage chairs.” “My friend has an affinity for making things out of cardboard.” In these examples, “growing fruit,” “vintage chairs,” and “making things out of cardboard” are passive elements, not active components in a relationship. Better to say “a talent for growing fruit,” “a fondness for vintage chairs,” “a flair for making things out of cardboard.”

In the examples above, affinity is followed by the preposition for. But in formal English, the phrase affinity for is despised. The editor Theodore M. Bernstein advised writers to “discard for” and instead “use betweenwith, or sometimes to.”

Here are three sentences that use affinity correctly: “There is an affinity between the Irish and the Italians that can be hard to explain.” “Some people have a natural affinity with children.” “Two vaccines containing native proteins with affinity to porcine transferrin were tested.”

There is no affinity unless it is shared by both parties.

 

Pop Quiz

Are these sentences all right? Do any need fixing? Suggested answers are below.
1. She has some affinity for math.
2. This is a politician with an affinity for making headlines.
3. I knew she always despised me, but I didn’t realize she detested me.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. She has some talent for math.
2. This is a politician with a gift for making headlines.
3. I knew she always despised me, but I didn’t realize she detested me. CORRECT

To comment on this grammar tip, click on the title.

Posted on Tuesday, January 13, 2015, at 10:28 am