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That which we dispute

A useful distinction that American grammarians and editors make is to differentiate between that and which, which linguists call illegitimate.

The sentence above embodies the distinction: that as a relative pronoun introducing a restrictive/limiting/essential clause (depending on what terminology you were taught), which as a relative pronoun introducing a nonrestrictive/non-limiting/nonessential clause.

You remember Annie Get Your Gun: "The girl that I marry will have to be/ As soft and pink as a nursery …" — of all the girls in the world, the one I marry will have to have these qualities. It is a limiting clause, specifying one out of a number of possibilities.

From My Fair Lady you’ll recall the lines "A man was made to help support his children,/ Which is the right and proper thing to do …" — the which clause supplying additional, parenthetical information not essential to the sentence.

Or to put it more simply, a which clause is set off by commas, and a that clause is not.

That will probably bring down on my head the wrath of the linguists at Language Log (http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/), who appear to hate copy editors’ guts. But I’m just a simple country boy from Kentucky who learned English grammar in Mrs. Jessie Perkins’ fifth- and sixth-grade classes at Elizaville Elementary School and who just tries to get by on what is reasonable and useful.

It is true that British writers use which for both restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses, as linguists point out. It is also true that the distinction American grammarians observe is essentially a preference. But as a moderate (rather than headstrong) prescriptivist, I agree with H.W. Fowler that careful writers and editors will strive to maintain useful distinctions of usage.

Failing to maintain the that/which distinction in American English can lead to ambiguity, especially now that writers bafflingly tend to introduce nonrestrictive clauses with that.

For example: "It's fair to say that he's vulnerable," said Republican Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota, a member of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee that has been investigating the government's response to Katrina. That wording, "the Government Affairs Committee that has been investigating the government’s response," would suggest that there are multiple Government Affairs Committees and that we are here specifying the one investigating Katrina. But it is not an essential or restrictive element, and it would read better set off with commas as a which clause.

Posted by John McIntyre at 4:36 PM | | Comments (13)
        

Comments

John, this is one where I'll stand at your side to the death against those Language Loggers.

I'm not sure linguists would call it this an "illegitimate distinction." Most of the descriptivist comments I've seen point out that restrictive "which" ("a day which will live in infamy") is usually pretty clear in its meaning. But I've never seen anyone stick up for the nonrestrictive "that" that you cite, which is the sort of annoying AP-ism we should resolutely strive to stamp out. (The one I use in class is just as silly: "Formal talks at this Red Sea resort adjourned over the Jewish Sabbath that started Friday.")

I think the which/that rule is a really good way to underline a really important distinction, and I have no problem being prescriptive about it. But we might get a few more converts from upcampus if we point out that the real enemy is the false restrictive.

Language academics unite,you have nothing to lose except your unbearable bordom and tedious punctiliousness!Venture into the world of "Lingustic Post processual communication" and freely disperse words,including avarous expletives uninhibitedly, into the firery mix of our American behavior comity!
Post processual Languistics is the future of communication!

Umm, you do all realize that that hed has a restrictive relative clause beginning with "which", don't you?

I'm all for maintaining useful distinctions, but not for inventing them out of whole cloth, as Fowler did in this case. English is a common possession, and no one person gets to make up rules about how it should and shouldn't be used. I mean, there are people who claim that "gray" and "grey" are two different colors, but the rest of us laugh at them.

But really I'm posting to draw your attention to Geoff Pullum's remarkably temperate reply (for him). at Language Log today.

What's the harm in using "which" both restrictively and non-restrictively? With human antecedents we only have one relative pronoun, "who," which is used both restrictively and non-restrictively, and somehow we manage to avoid ambiguity. Why is it so useful with non-human antecedents to adhere to a distinction in writing which no one observes in speech? Justifying the prohibition against the restrictive use of "which" on the basis of a supposed need to avoid ambiguity is especially unconvincing because in writing we have a mandatory device to distinguish restrictive from non-restrictive relative clauses, namely, the comma. Other languages (German and Russian spring to mind) don't draw any distinction between restrictive and non-restrictive relative clauses, either by the use of distinctive relative pronouns or by punctuation (all relative clauses being set off by commas); yet somehow successful communication occurs in these languages.

"Formal talks at this Red Sea resort adjourned over the Jewish Sabbath that started Friday."

This could easily be restrictive, if you're talking about last Friday, and not the Jewish Sabbath that started some other Friday.

Also, the non-restrictive "that" used in the next sentence sounds more grammatical than "which" would:

Formal talks at this Red Sea resort will adjourn over the Jewish Sabbath, that starts Friday.

But I’m just a simple country boy from Kentucky who learned English grammar in Mrs. Jessie Perkins’ fifth- and sixth-grade classes at Elizaville Elementary School and who just tries to get by on what is reasonable and useful.

'Ah'm just a poor country boy.' Then go back and look after the cows!

Copy editors are supposed to know English grammar and usage, not some petty prejudices they were mistaught at Grade School.

Pretending you are defending standards in order to feel morally superior merely causes people who know to treat you with contempt. If a Quality engineer at Ford announced that the engine needed changing because it didn't follow the Feng Shui principles he learnt from his fifth grade teacher he'd be on his 'arse. You're no better.

The trouble with so-called language mavens is that they think they are the architects and structural engineers of language, when they are no more than a set of mediocre interior decorators.

//Also, the non-restrictive "that" used in the next sentence sounds more grammatical than "which" would:

Formal talks at this Red Sea resort will adjourn over the Jewish Sabbath, that starts Friday.//

I can't think of a circumstance under which that would sound "more grammatical." Whatever that might mean.

"//Also, the non-restrictive "that" used in the next sentence sounds more grammatical than "which" would:

Formal talks at this Red Sea resort will adjourn over the Jewish Sabbath, that starts Friday.//

I can't think of a circumstance under which that would sound "more grammatical." Whatever that might mean."

it would sound good with a period and a capital T. Of course, then it wouldn't be a relative clause anymore.

Also, the non-restrictive "that" used in the next sentence sounds more grammatical than "which" would:

Formal talks at this Red Sea resort will adjourn over the Jewish Sabbath, that starts Friday.

There are cases of non-restrictive 'that' but they are few and far between. I wouldn't go so far as to say that the construction is ungrammatical, but it is unusual and sounds strange to speakers of all varieties of English, and I can support a copy editor querying it.

Shouldn't it have been "The girl WHOM I marry," anyway?

Fats "Isn't It a Shame" Domino

The problem in "the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee that has been investigating the government's response" is the missing comma, not the use of "that". If it read "the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, that has been investigating the government's response" it would be restrictive.

Maintaining useful distinctions is a correct principle. (http://tinyurl.com/yfxwp45) But the question is whether the that/which rule obliterates a _more_ useful distinction. We already have the comma to distinguish between restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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