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On that we might agree

Rather than prolong the heaving and sweating over which and that following a response to this blog by Professor Geoffrey Pullum at Language Log, I’d like to make a couple of simple points.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage describes where things stand on the controversy at the moment: “You can use either which or that to introduce a restrictive clause—the grounds for your choice should be stylistic—and which to introduce a nonrestrictive clause.”

Like the brothers Fowler, I think that it would be beneficial for writers to follow a general practice of using that to introduce restrictive clauses and which to introduce nonrestrictive clauses. Though some writers on grammar and usage would like to call that a rule, it is a suggestion. I recommend it as a stylistic preference.

One reason for my preference is the increasing tendency for writers to revive the archaic use of that to introduce nonrestrictive clauses. I see dozens of examples a week in reporters’ copy. While it’s usually possible for the reader to puzzle out the intended meaning, it is neither precise nor elegant.

A digression

Professor Pullum’s urbanity and good humor are not always imitated.

Someone named Stephen Jones commented on the “I’m just a simple country boy” passage in my post: “'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.”

Someone else named Peter Seibel commented similarly at his blog: “Why is it that English grammar is one of the few fields where what we learned in fifth and sixth grade is considered state of the art? I doubt the Sun’s assistant managing editor in charge of political reporting would explain the paper’s approach to election coverage by saying: ‘I’m just a simple country boy from Kentucky who learned about U.S. politics in Mr. Bobbie Smith’s fifth- and sixth-grade Social Studies classes at Elizaville Elementary School.’”

Messrs. Jones and Seibel offer a valuable reminder to writers and editors that there will always be some readers for whom an explanation of irony will be necessary.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:28 AM | | Comments (2)


Irony? Didn't you know that so not web2.0-friendly? It went out with sarcasm and wit. No one uses those anymore.


I'd love to see some examples of "that" used for nonrestrictive clauses -- particulary ones that create confusion. Any chance you'd be willing to share a few?

June Casagrande

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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
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