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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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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