In which I learn that I am vindicated…

This morning I had the delightful “I was right all along!” experience of learning that the one grammatical bugaboo in my life is probably bogus. The next time a copy-editor invokes it on me I shall gleefully kick him or her in the snout…

I am an exceptionally skilled grammarian in English. Only rarely do I make even spelling errors, and my syntax and usage are normally impeccable. This is not to say that I follow every remonstrance in the strictest style guides – there are some rules which I regard as empty scholasticism imposed on the language by compulsive Latinists and view with contempt, such as those against splitting infinitives or putting a preposition at the end of a sentence. I am also quite willing to deliberately violate strict canons of usage for stylistic effect. That said, copy editors working on my stuff usually find that about all they have to do is fix typos; I give them almost nothing to complain about. In fact I am rather more likely to correct their grammar than they are to correct mine.

However, there is one exception that has been irritating me for years – the only usage rule of “correct” English I routinely get gigged with. It’s the rule for whether to use “that” or “which” heading a demonstrative phrase. I use the two more or less interchangeably. I didn’t internalize any real distinction between them as a child and have not succeeded in learning one as an adult – I’ve had two editors try to explain the “restrictive” vs. “nonrestrictive” distinction to me and give up.

But now I learn that this rule is probably bogus!. That is, it was proposed in one influential style guide (Fowler’s “The King’s English”) without historical foundation, and no less an author than Mark Twain has been cited as a counterexample.

I feel quite empowered by this revelation; I’ll choose Twain’s fluid, expressive Americanism over British stuffiness any day of the week. (It is not unlikely that my native writing style was significantly shaped by early exposure to him.) Take that rule and shove it!

47 thoughts on “In which I learn that I am vindicated…

  1. I’m British and that rule means nothing to me. Thanks for tarring us all with your xenophobic generalisations.

  2. Further – in my local dialect, we are far more likely to use “what” over “which” and probably “that” in the situations defined in your first link. If I was speaking formally, I’d use “that” more frequently than “which”. “Which” sounds like “whom” over “who” to me, so therefore a more American style pattern of speech.

  3. Surely, ESR, in a real sense, all arbitrary grammatical rules are ‘bogus’. The Lord did not give them to us on high, after all. For example, that English still has some of its pronouns showing morphological case (but not others) is arbitrary too, but it doesn’t mean we all say “give it to he!” with impunity. Whether one person suggests a rule or a million, our acceptance of that rule or not is what is signifies its utility.

  4. Further – in my local dialect, we are far more likely to use “what” over “which” and probably “that” in the situations defined in your first link.

    This parrot, wot I bought not ‘alf an hour earlier, from this very boutique, is dead.

    :)

  5. Quote from the site you mentioned “A phase is nonrestrictive phase if the phase can be from the sentence.” Um, yes?

  6. I was amused when the only “typo” my adviser found in my thesis was that I said, “It is to be desired that the software implement these features” (or something along those lines). (He thought it was supposed to be “implements”.) Of course, he wasn’t a native English speaker, and can be forgiven for not knowing the finer points of the subjunctive.

  7. @Aaron

    Ah, the subjunctive. Oh, how I weep for its demise. How often do you hear someone say “If I was ___”? I hear it frequently, and wince every time, if I don’t mutter “were” under my breath, or over it for that matter.

    But everyone who knows me considers me a Grammar Nazi, far too picky about such things, which everyone knows is uncool. What kills me is when it comes from computer geeks, who damned well know how important it is to follow proper syntax when communicating with a compiler or interpreter, but don’t give their human correspondents the same consideration.

  8. I always have trouble with the “which” vs “that”. Even after reading about correct usage, I still don’t fully get it. I find it odd that, as a native speaker, I didn’t naturally internalize the distinction. The most effective way that I can explain the difference is that it is the same as the difference between “a/an” and “the”, which is a distinction that non-native speakers have trouble with. Unfortunately, even knowing that as the difference hasn’t helped me choose correctly between “which” and “that”.

  9. “In this volume I have used portions of letters which I wrote for the Daily Alta California”

    Honestly, I would probably use “that” there, but “which” doesn’t bother me much. On the other hand, I hate “have used”. It’s a pointless addition of an unnecessary extra verb. (And isn’t there a comma missing?) I would prefer “In this volume, I used portions of letters that I wrote for the Daily Alta California”.

    The funny thing is, “that” sounds right to me, even though I have no idea why. I don’t think I’ve ever heard the which-that rule before. But it could just be that after several years of being corrected by editors who probably sleep with Fowler at night, I simply internalized it.

  10. Hear hear, Mr. Raymond! Take which rule and shove it!

    Ahem.

    The Monster says: “What kills me is when it comes from computer geeks, who damned well know how important it is to follow proper syntax when communicating with a compiler or interpreter, but don’t give their human correspondents the same consideration.”

    Well stated! However, I would submit that until human correspondents learn to parse what I write like good deterministic finite automata, I shall reserve the right to save my grammar-generating breath, as it were.

  11. >Surely, ESR, in a real sense, all arbitrary grammatical rules are ‘bogus’.

    Some are more bogus than others. That is why I emphasized “without historical foundation” – apparently Fowler was not codifying established usage, he just made this one up because he felt like it.

  12. @silvermine
    There is a distinction between the past tense and the present perfect. One cannot use the past tense in describing “this volume”. On a smaller scale of granularity, I can’t properly refer to this comment in the past tense in this comment itself. I can only speak of the way I “have written” the comment, not how I “wrote it”, because I am writing it even as I write this sentence.

    OTOH, when people use the word “utilize”, when the word “use” would do just fine, it generally pegs out my “pointless addition” meter.

    The rule for me is “if it conveys the same meaning both ways, use the shorter form, but if it adds something, go ahead and use the longer form”.

  13. @The Monster
    Had you will have been commenting about writing that comment?

  14. strictest style guides – there are some rules

    I think you meant to use a dash there — that thing you’ve used is a hyphen.

    crosses fingers, wishes there was a preview button…

    ESR says: It’s a distinction I don’t worry about when I’m writing in ASCII. And no, WordPress won’t render HTML literals in comments; I’ve tried it.

  15. ESR says: It’s a distinction I don’t worry about when I’m writing in ASCII. And no, WordPress won’t render HTML literals in comments; I’ve tried it.

    I’ve made a habit of using Latex style triple and double hyphens for em- and en-dashes — it’s surprising how often other software recognises them.

  16. @RickC
    Let’s do the Time Warp again!

    I’m not sure about “HTML Literals”, but we’ll try some HTML Entities just for fun; I rarely find a website that strips these in comments:

    & mdash ; = —
    & ndash ; = –

    Grätüïtöüs Ümläüts

  17. There should be no space before or after an em-dash. It is, to compound subordinate clauses, as the hyphen is to compound words.

  18. There should be no space before or after an em-dash. It is, to compound subordinate clauses, as the hyphen is to compound words.

    I assume that esr reads English perfectly well, so I saw no need to translate into American.

  19. >There should be no space before or after an em-dash. It is, to compound subordinate clauses, as the hyphen is to compound words.

    This is not a topic on which the usage guides all agree. I prefer to leave whitespace around the em-dash, as I think it looks too crowded otherwise. Since I’ve been asked about my preference by at least one typesetter I think this is a fairly common variation.

  20. I was amused when the only “typo” my adviser found in my thesis was that I said, “It is to be desired that the software implement these features”

    Implement vs. implements is the least of your problems. Software is a word that is both singular and plural — “sK1 is a nice piece of illustration software” vs “The GNOME desktop comprises an entire collection of software.” While I agree with ESR about crazy arbitrary style rules, it is sometimes better to avoid using passive voice. “It is to be desired that the software implement these features” is a bit awkward when you can say, for instance, “The customer desires that the software implement these features” or “The customer desires the software to implement these features,” or even better and more straight to the point: “The software should implement these features.” Your choice of wording in that sentence is awkward and confusing.

  21. @esr: I don’t know about the story poster in WordPress — I’ve never used it myself as I don’t particularly care for WordPress (and I’m not criticizing your choice here; everyone has their own personal preferences) — but when posting a comment, if you put in the old typewriter convention for an em-dash — two hyphens (-) in a row — WordPress automagically converts them into an em-dash entity for you. Nice feature.

  22. Morgan,

    If “software” were both singular and plural, like “sheep” or “ninja”, constructions of the form “these software are very useful” would be commonplace but I’ve yet to hear them.

    Rather, I do believe “software” is a mass noun, like “furniture”. “My grandmother has a large collection of antique furniture”. “I reinstalled all my software after reformatting.”

  23. The word “software” is neither singular nor plural. It is indeed a “mass” or “non-count” noun, like “blood”. We don’t say that a patient in a hospital needs “two bloods”; we say that he needs “two units of blood”. I drink “sixteen fluid ounces of water”, not “sixteen waters”.

    However, some traditionally non-count nouns are colloquially converted into count nouns. I may order two half-pint cartons of milk for my lunch by saying “two milks, please”. Don’t be surprised if we see “software” make that same journey to become countable.

  24. I believe one of the drivers behind putting a space before and after a dash (or two hyphens) is that primitive programs for the display of text do line breaks at whitespace. Such softwares (heh) would treat the last word of one clause, the dash, and the first word of the next clause, as a single word.

  25. @Jeff — I think you’re right, since you usually see “these software packages” or “these software programs” as opposed to “these software”. So, at least by American standards, it’s “software implements” not “software implement”.

  26. ESR wrote:
    > Some are more bogus than others. That is why I emphasized “without
    > historical foundation” – apparently Fowler was not codifying established
    > usage, he just made this one up because he felt like it.

    Perhaps in Twain and Fowler’s day that was true, however, it is not true today. Whatever its origins, there is extensive historical precedent for this rule today. I would bet it appears in every English grammar for the past 100 years. Just as most modern grammars encourage one to boldly split one’s infinitives, grammar changes and adapts over time. To put it another way,in today’s day and age, endingone’s sentences with prepositions is where it is at.

  27. The Monster,

    Where are you from? Count-noun usage of “software” is indicative of a native European (one of those typed-accent things). It’s commonplace in French (un logiciel, des logiciels) but virtually unheard of in English.

  28. So, at least by American standards, it’s “software implements” not “software implement”.

    In the indicative, but not in the subjunctive mood.

  29. Jeff, I’ve lived in KS since the age of two. I have a comment in moderation for some inexplicable reason that would put that (heh) usage of “softwares” in better perspective.

    I’m familiar with the great divide between US and UK usage for group nouns. Imagine these news headlines:
    “The US Navy is conducting exercises in the Persian Gulf”
    “The Royal Navy are conducting exercises in the Persian Gulf”

    I think the only case I’m aware of in which US usage construes a group noun in the plural is athletics
    “The Kansas City Chiefs expect another difficult season.”
    Because the name of the team is a plural, this is understandable. But even the rare team with a non-count name usually takes a verb as if it were plural:
    “The Miami Heat play at 8 pm.”

  30. Come to think of it, I should expand that to any group with a name already formed as a plural:

    “The Eagles have sold out their Saturday show.”
    “Boston has some tickets available for Sunday.”

    “Earth, Wind, and Fire are on tour with Chicago.”
    “EWF is on tour with Chicago.” (Nobody actually calls them “EWF” to my knowledge.)

    “The Veterans of Foreign Wars are hosting a town-hall meeting about problems in the VA hospital system.”
    “The VFW is hosting a town-hall meeting about problems in the VA hospital system.

  31. Can you be an “exceptionally skilled grammarian in English” if you don’t go to the extent of following all the rules of grammar, albeit ones you don’t agree with? It sounds as if you define perfect English grammar by what you think is right. That appears to be more of an ego issue than a grammar one.

    You convey your message in writing perfectly well, of course you do and I’m not questioning that part, but you appear to pick and choose what rules you follow and then say you’re following the rules perfectly. I think that is an unbelievably egotistical position to hold.

  32. >Can you be an “exceptionally skilled grammarian in English” if you don’t go to the extent of following all the rules of grammar, albeit ones you don’t agree with?

    Yes, Poor or indifferently-skilled grammarians litter their prose with usage errors by accident. The consequence of grammatical skill is that when you break a rule, you know you are doing it and you know why. And such occasions are pretty rare, anyway.

  33. >I would bet it appears in every English grammar for the past 100 years.

    And you are probably wrong, big-time, on this one. It’s not in Strunk & White, for starters.

  34. It’s a Unicode world—and if your keyboard layout doesn’t let you easily type dashes and other advanced punctuation, you’re missing out.

  35. ESR wrote:
    >And you are probably wrong, big-time, on this one. It’s not in Strunk & White, for starters.

    Hey, if you are quoting Strunk and White you really should have said:

    “No, no, no, wrong, wrong, wrong.”

  36. Fowler is not so much stuffy, as gloriously idiosyncratic, to the point of being almost unusable as a reference. The comparison I’d make is between American legal literalism and British flexible eccentricity :) .

  37. The Monster: I disagree with two of your examples.

    “Earth, Wind, and Fire” IS playing tonight; “Earth, Wind, and Fire” is a single entity. If “Earth, Wind, and Fire” ARE playing tonight: which opens, Earth, Wind, or Fire? If they are all together, which one is on drums? IS Smashing Pumpkins releasing a new album? ARE Nine Inch Nails touring Australia? The Eagles, Beatles, Rolling Stones, Pogues, Go-Gos, B-52s, or Supremes are performing – the plural in the name refers to the plural performers, though.

    As for the Veterans of Foreign Wars: it can be either plural or singular, depending on whether the reference is to the organization or to the members. Whether it is abbreviated doesn’t matter.

    Software is like sheep: the singular and plural are the same,

  38. it’s a thesis, it’s supposed to sound turgid.

    as to the number agreement of corporate nouns, i recently saw “australia collapse” scroll by on a news ticker. the difference from “australia collapses” is significant.

  39. “Earth, Wind, and Fire” is a single entity

    I believe that begs the question of the grammatical number used with group nouns.

    If we were talking about “Peter, Paul, and Mary, the name of a performing group that is clearly derived from three of its members, would you be more likely to construe it in the plural? How about “Van Halen”, the surname originally of two, now of three of its members? I can’t imagine any American saying “Van Halen are recording a new album”. Maybe that’s an unfair example; the band is not named for Alex or Wolfgang, but for Eddie.

    Software is like sheep: the singular and plural are the same,

    Software has no singular nor plural, for it is a non-count/mass noun. We count “one sheep, two sheep, three sheep”, but we do not count “one software, two software(s), three software(s)”; we may however say “one software application, two software applications, three software applications <Count von Count>HAHA! Three Glorious Software Applications</Count von Count>”

  40. Re: “that” versus “which”. Here are examples.
    “The thing that annoys me most is …”
    “Deep frying, which is popular in Belgium, is less used by vegetarians.

    The rule is that a qualifying clause that is needed to identify the subject
    uses “that”; otherwise “which”.

    “That” is used without comma, “which” is used with a comma.This distinction is considered to be important in the U.S. The British seem to be oblivious to the distinction.

    I write in English and am neither American nor British.
    I am annoyed by the British confusing “that” with “which”.

  41. I had a copy editor several years ago who dismissed all this argle-bargle as “engaging in which hunts”.

  42. I’m Irish and managed an MA and PhD in English Literature without ever coming across the that/which conundrum in any shape or form. It seems to be a strictly transatlantic obsession. I am neither British nor American either but Maarten Van Emden’s typically Dutch grouchiness is misplaced. ‘That’ and ‘which’ are not interchangeable but neither can they be absolutely differentiated. In the sentence “Deep frying, which is popular in Belgium, is less used by vegetarians” ‘that’ can not be substituted for ‘which’; but as regards his first example “The thing that annoys me the most is…” the variation “The thing which annoys me most is…” is perfectly idiomatic English and undoubtedly quite grammatically correct. Both forms are extensively and interchangeably used all across the Anglophone world. All native speakers know this but some allow their intuitive sense to be impugned by pedantic stylistic Pecksniffian fusspottery. Indeed how any non-native speaker can be “annoyed” by the linguistic practice of tens of millions of “British’ speakers of their native tongue is a phenomenon more worthy of investigation than the topic under discussion.

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