Grammar Rage

Copyright (c)…is like road rage, but with splattered ink. I just came across this excerpt from a ‘kooky new gram­mar book’ — they’re always new, they’re always kooky, but the fun­da­ment­al indif­fer­ence of the English lan­guage to rules per­sists — writ­ten by an American journ­al­ist called June Casagrande (link via Galleycat)

Just like every­body else I felt stu­pid that I’ve nev­er really under­stood the dif­fer­ence between “that” and “which,” but I didn’t let this shame stop me from con­fess­ing my ignor­ance repeatedly to col­leagues until even­tu­ally one told me to look it up.

Now here’s an odd thing. Generally speak­ing, nobody seems to know the dif­fer­ence between ‘that’ and ‘which’. And some people seem to run around the place decry­ing their ignor­ance in the hope that a poor fool will explain it to them. More fool the poor fool, because, once explained, the ques­tion­er will declare the answer to be gram­mat­ic­al mumbo jumbo and, any­way, if the great writers of the English lan­guage didn’t know the dif­fer­ence, why should they? Well, if you don’t want to know, don’t ask. Sheesh.

And now that I finally get it, I can see where a major source of my con­fu­sion came from: merry old England.

What? I mean, what? Which is to say: WHAT?

Even now, sev­er­al minutes after read­ing this art­icle, the heat of my face warms my hands as they bash the key­board.

Consider the fol­low­ing oh-so-British-sound­ing sen­tence: The col­lege which I attend is bet­ter than the col­lege which you attend. This use of “which” is found in every rung of British English, from the poorest Cockney flower girl all the way up to clas­sic Monty Python sketches.

Ex-SQUEEZE me? British-sound­ing? Bri- Bri-

Too. Angry. To. Type.

Perhaps the above sen­tence would be con­sidered cor­rect over there, even though the Oxford English Grammar seems to sug­gest that this con­struc­tion is wrong on both sides of the pond.

No, Ms Casagrande, it eff­ing well would not be con­sidered cor­rect over here. Allow me to solve the mys­tery of the per­plex­ing Oxford English Grammar advice on the use of ‘that’ and ‘which’: the OEG presents this rule because it is bloody well the right rule, and always has been. All edi­tions Fowler’s observe it. So too does the Guardian’s online style guide, which is a little quirky oth­er­wise. The inter­change­ab­il­ity of that and which is not a ‘Britishicism’ or, as you say in your quaint, murder-invit­ing way, ‘Brit-speak’.

Jp. Jp. Aaargh. Anger. Rising. Once. More.

Blimey, what must I be like in real life? Just don’t get me star­ted on gram­mar. Just. Don’t.

Hhhhhhhhhhhhh’OK. Let me con­cede that, yes, I know the odd British writer who doesn’t under­stand the dif­fer­ence between ‘that’ and ‘which’. Douglas Adams is one, and — though the esteem in which I hold his work is well doc­u­mented — it’s always been a source of slight embar­rass­ment that Adams couldn’t tell the dif­fer­ence and neither, pre­sum­ably, could any of the edit­ors who looked over his manu­scripts pri­or to their pub­lic­a­tion. But I’ve seen American authors make this mis­take more often. Let’s remem­ber that I don’t sample ran­domly from all fic­tion, so I can’t make any claims about American fic­tion in gen­er­al, but only last week I was read­ing Stephen King’s (nicely done) From a Buick 8 and noticed a which/that error.

Now, I’m a slightly odd per­son. (I know. You’re shocked.) I have a PhD in an arcane dis­cip­line called syn­tact­ic psy­cho­lin­guist­ics. Oh, the stor­ies I could tell about com­ple­ment­izer ambi­gu­ity! I spent four years of my life, which I will nev­er get back, giv­ing people tests cun­ningly designed to ana­lyze the man­ner in which they pro­cessed sen­tences con­tain­ing — what are known in the trade as — rel­at­ive clauses.

Here’re two things about gram­mar: (1) Grammatical rela­tion­ships are fiendishly com­plex. (2) No mat­ter how fiendishly com­plex they are, rest assured that you are fully expert in their use.

Let me explain. Look at this:

The gram­mat­ic­al rela­tion­ships are rep­res­en­ted by the tree-like struc­ture. It seems com­plic­ated, and it is, but if you’ve got this far in my post then you’re already an expert, and you’ve already out­stripped the best of our man-made machines designed to com­pre­hend lan­guage simply by read­ing my sen­tences, par­tic­u­larly long, com­plex ones like this. You have these rules already, and they’re between your ears.

You developed a know­ledge of these rela­tion­ships as a child because your brain is designed to hoover them up (the suc­tion drops con­sid­er­ably once you’re out of your teens, by the way, so try to learn lan­guages when you’re young). Back to ‘that’ and ‘which’. You can learn the dif­fer­ence between the two just by being exposed to good examples. You don’t need to both­er with tech­nic­al terms, though ‘restrict­ive’ vs. ‘non-restrict­ive’ might be help­ful as a memory aide. Take a look at these sen­tences:

(1) The car that was red inter­ested the buy­er.

(2) The car, which was red, inter­ested the buy­er.

Now, I repeat: you already know this. Just mull over the sen­tences and let the dif­fer­ence in mean­ing per­col­ate out. In (1), the buy­er was inter­ested, out of all the cars on dis­play, in the red one. In (2), the buy­er was inter­ested in the car and it happened to be red. The red­ness isn’t import­ant. In fact, it can be snipped out with no impact on the main asser­tion of the sen­tence (as sug­ges­ted by the com­mas).

That’s it. All done. The next time you find your­self express­ing an idea in this way (and this con­struc­tion is very com­mon in English) then: if you’re restrict­ing the first bit of the sen­tence, use ‘that’; if you’re just describ­ing the first bit of the sen­tence, use ‘which’. Remember, if you can see a dif­fer­ence in mean­ing between (1) and (2), you already have the rule between your ears, and don’t worry about nam­ing the ‘sub­ject’ and ‘rel­at­ive pro­noun’ and all the oth­er gub­bins. If you use this con­struc­tion once or twice in the next couple of days, I expect you’ll appre­ci­ate that the dis­tinc­tion between ‘that’ and ‘which’ is very use­ful.

And not just because you’re an American.


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Author: Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

5 thoughts on “Grammar Rage”

  1. But surely Fowlers (I don’t have the OEG) allows restrict­ive clauses to be intro­duced by either “that” or “which,” while non-restrict­ive clauses are neces­sar­ily intro­duced by “which.” What does the OEG say?

  2. Hi Debra

    Let me check. The lengthy art­icle my copy of Fowler’s is a mix­ture of the descript­ive and the pre­script­ive, and is pre­faced by lots of com­ments about not get­ting worked up when that/which sub­sti­tu­tions occur as rel­at­ive pro­nouns. Where it is pre­script­ive, I inter­pret Fowler’s as strongly indic­at­ing the that/which dis­tinc­tion made above. It is true, how­ever, that Fowler’s also writes that the that/which dis­tinc­tion is observed more often in American than International English. That could well be true; I don’t think it is in my exper­i­ence. It would be inter­est­ing to look at a parsed word cor­pus to find out…


    PS My edi­tion of Fowler’s is the one edited by Ernest Gowers, so I could be charged with being old fashioned…unfortunately, I don’t have a copy of the OEG.

  3. I’m too lazy to read the entire that/which art­icle in my copy, which is the 3rd edi­tion ed. by Burchfield. But I’m not get­ting a strong pre­scrip­tion­ist favor­ing of that for restrict­ive clauses from him. He quotes Fowler in 1926 as sug­gest­ing it would improve lucid­ity if the two pro­nouns had dis­tinct usages, but he’s not say­ing it him­self. For myself, I’ve always selec­ted either that or which for restrict­ive clauses depend­ing on which sounds bet­ter in the sen­tence.

  4. Yes, at the end of the day, it’s what ‘works’ that works. Anyway, that’s enough gram­mar read­ing for me. My eyes are going funny.

  5. I pos­ted on this excerpt, and oth­er gram­mat­ic­al mat­ters, yes­ter­day:, but without the gram­mar-rage and without being very inter­est­ing (maybe the two are related).

    I broadly agree with your post, Ian, if you “know it you know it”. That’s my line on most gram­mar, and my long exper­i­ence of look­ing things up in Hart’s or Fowler is that these tomes seem to jus­ti­fy any par­tic­u­lar use.

    However, I have to say that our subed­it­ors at work con­stantly fail to agree on “thats” and “whichs”, as they do about com­mas, hyphens and all the rest. I do a lot of this stuff on instinct, but that does not get very far when I try to resolve argu­ments between them.

    So all I really can do is to avoid them get­ting into the situ­ation described so tellingly in the two good pages of “Eats, Shoots, and Leaves”, about the subed­it­ors tak­ing out and re-insert­ing each oth­ers’ com­mas on end­less cycles of proofs. Not as easy to avoid as one might think.

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