Walking into a buzzsaw

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Michael Bulley made a profoundly incautious comment in a discussion in the Guardian newspaper's "Comment is free" online section today. He was following up a pathetic column on usage by the paper's style guide editor, David Marsh. Unsurprisingly, Marsh had attempted to defend the totally fake which-that rule for integrated (or ‘defining’) relative clauses, which we have so often critiqued here at Language Log. Wrote Bulley, rather pompously:

No one would deny that there are numerous examples of "which" introducing a relative clause that defines (if they weren't any, no one would object to them as being bad style!), but are you just going to say to someone "This is what lots of people do, so it's OK for you to do it as well"? I'm reading Mark Twain's Innocents Abroad. I haven't checked, but I'd bet he never uses "which" as a defining relative.

Oh, no! It was like watching someone walking backwards toward a buzzsaw. I could hardly bear to look. You don't say things like that in the age of We-Can-Fact-Check-Your-Ass!

What's more, Bulley had said this in a thread where Steve Jones was participating. Steve has (how shall I put it?) never worried unduly about whether his smartness-to-niceness ratio might stray above 1.0 sometimes. I knew he would grab an electronic copy of Twain and check immediately, and Bulley could expect no mercy. Sure enough, a few comments later, there was Steve, with a response even more brilliantly acid than I was expecting:

Well, when you've finished the table of contents, and get round to reading the Preface, you'll find this example in the third paragraph.

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

Smack! When will people learn the new first rule of the blogosphere, WCFCYA?

(Twain was, of course, an excellent writer. He knew there was no rule forbidding which in integrated relatives, so he used it when it struck him as right. Excellent writers who have not been forced to submit to American copy editors on this point tend to use which and that in roughly equal proportions at the beginnings of their integrated relative clauses. And there may be a subtle meaning difference: it seems to me that there is a slight bias toward using which when the noun phrase is indefinite or introduces something new, and that when the noun phrase is definite or refers to something established in the discourse. It is the nervous, insecure, and gullible minor writers, not the great ones, who believe there is a hallowed rule of English grammar that they can comply with if they deprive themselves of their freedom to choose between which and that as best suits the context. Great writers know better.)

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47 Comments »

  1. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 24, 2009 @ 5:28 pm

    I'm used to "X's ass" as a synonym for "X", of course, but I've never seen it used so appropriately as when the victim is described as backing toward a buzz saw.

  2. Alan Gunn said,

    August 24, 2009 @ 5:34 pm

    "The Innocents Abroad" was written quite a few years before the Fowler brothers proposed the which/that "rule" in "The King's English." One would think that an advocate of the proposal would know where it came from. Most of the people I know who insist on following the Fowler proposal have at least noticed that it doesn't even purport to be based on actual practice, though they think it would be nice if people adopted it.

  3. NW said,

    August 24, 2009 @ 6:39 pm

    Any other great writer, it's like walking backwards. Mark Twain, that's like walking forwards and shouting, 'Come and get me!'

  4. Jonathon said,

    August 24, 2009 @ 7:41 pm

    One would think that an advocate of the proposal would know where it came from. Most of the people I know who insist on following the Fowler proposal have at least noticed that it doesn't even purport to be based on actual practice, though they think it would be nice if people adopted it.

    That's surprising. In my experience, most people who advocate the that/which distinction actually have no idea where the rule comes from, and they also advocate similarly baseless rules like the strict placement of only.

  5. Chris Crawford said,

    August 24, 2009 @ 9:43 pm

    I have always followed the Fowler rule, not because I regard it as sacrosanct, but because it makes sense to me. I do see a distinction to be drawn here and I do prefer to make that distinction clear by using 'which' and 'that' differently. But if you chose to use them interchangeably, that's your business.

  6. Stephen Jones said,

    August 25, 2009 @ 2:12 am

    I do see a distinction to be drawn here and I do prefer to make that distinction clear by using 'which' and 'that' differently.

    The problem is that if most people ignore the rule you're not making the distinction. A survey in 1977 of edited American prose found that 'which' was used 75% of the time in restrictive clauses.

  7. Richard Sabey said,

    August 25, 2009 @ 5:14 am

    Stephen Jones: The problem is that if most people ignore the rule you're not making the distinction.

    A problem for whom? If a reader ignores the rule, it won't matter to that reader whether the writer follows the rule or not. A reader who believes the rule to be valid fares better if the writer follows it. OK, not everyone benefits, but nobody is the worse.

    (I believe the rule to be bogus, my belief coming from having seen plenty of defining clauses with "which" as well as plenty with "that". Instead, I interpret a relative clause as descriptive if it is set off with commas and defining if it isn't.)

  8. Stephen Jones said,

    August 25, 2009 @ 5:47 am

    Instead, I interpret a relative clause as descriptive if it is set off with commas and defining if it isn't.)

    Commas in writing, or a pause in speaking is what decides if a relative clause is restrictive or non-restrictive.

    With regard to Chris's rule even somebody who follows the rule doesn't know if Chris is another who does, so he's not actually making any distinction clear to anybody.

  9. rolig said,

    August 25, 2009 @ 6:31 am

    Writers (and copy editors) who scrupulously follow such rules as the which/that distinction are doing so, I suspect, not because they want to make their prose clearer to the reader but because they like the sense of order and consistency such rules provide. They do it to please themselves, just like people who keep their underwear neatly folded and organized in a drawer. And perhaps there is something, maybe a great deal, to be said for such neatness.

    If the prose is well written, readers will have no problem sorting out whether a clause is restrictive or not, no matter whether the writer uses "which" or "that".

    As a copy editor who was instructed to always follow the which/that distinction, I must admit that sometimes "which" does seem the better choice for a restrictive clause, though I rarely know why. Geoffrey Pullum's suggestion that there may be some underlying "subtle meaning difference" I find intriguing.

  10. Graeme said,

    August 25, 2009 @ 7:55 am

    Microsoft Word enforces a rule of 'which' after a comma and 'that' without.

    Is there much research on whether grammar checkers are reinscribing rules into practice, dodgy or not?

  11. Dan Lufkin said,

    August 25, 2009 @ 10:10 am

    [Singular they, like conjunction, Fowler/Burchfield, no Strunk]

    What we need is a statement by the author, right under the byline, as to what conventions they use, like when you start a bridge game you say to your partner, "Stayman and forcing NT." That way you'd know whether to count on which and that as markers for restrictive and non-restrictive and stuff like that.

    Of course, as in bridge, this would lend itself to some good gamesmanship.

  12. mollymooly said,

    August 25, 2009 @ 10:19 am

    I vaguely remember reading in the 90s a piece, in either the Guardian or the Independent, testing UK people –teachers, perhaps– against an American Top-Ten-grammar-goofs list. The "that-which" point was the one most of those polled failed to get "right"; moreover, most had never heard of the purported rule. I would be disappointed but not surprised to find MS Word has increased its profile since.

    My favorite Guardian language piece is this one.

  13. PD said,

    August 25, 2009 @ 11:15 am

    Some copy-editors (like me) may implement the that-which prescription not because they consider it valid but as an efficiency based on who will be checking the piece after them.

    If I leave 'which' in place before an integrated relative clause during the copy-edit, and anyone else changes it along the way to print, all I've done is create extra work for the typesetter and leave the impression that I wasn't paying attention. (Obviously I could initiate a discussion of that-which, citing Twain and Pullum, but this is only feasible with close colleagues.)

    I have the same feeling when I'm editing an academic journal article prior to submission. Unless I have clear enough communications with the author to explain the that-which quandary, I change 'which' to 'that' before integrated relative clauses in order to minimize the number of changes the author will see at the journal copy-edit stage. I think that in circumstances where manuscripts go through subsequent edits without communication backwards in line, hyper-correction will always be favored.

  14. Bloix said,

    August 25, 2009 @ 11:26 am

    For Twain on writing, see "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses," http://www.pbs.org/marktwain/learnmore/writings_fenimore.html

  15. Neal Goldfarb said,

    August 25, 2009 @ 11:02 am

    Excellent writers who have not been forced to submit to American copy editors on this point tend to use which and that in roughly equal proportions at the beginnings of their integrated relative clauses.

    Be careful, we can fact-check your ass.

    I did a quick check of the following two texts to compare the frequency of relative pronoun which against that of relativizer that. (Geoff, please don't tell me you didn't anticipate this):

    Ideology, power, and linguistic theory by Geoffrey K. Pullum. An unpublished paper about prescriptivism; revised from a presentation to the Modern Language Association, December 2004. (Link)
    Irrational nativist exuberance by Barbara C. Scholz and Geoffrey K. Pullum. Uncorrected page proof published version in Contemporary Debates in Cognitive Science, ed. by Rob Stainton, pp. 59-80 (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 2006). (Link)

    The thats outnumbered the whiches by a large margin. In fact, I found only one instance in which which was used to introduce integrated relative clauses (not counting cases in which the relative clause was the object of a preposition). OTOH there was a whole bunch — almost a shitload — of integrated relatives introduced by that.
    Of course, this is just one data point and it doesn't disprove Geoff's statement. But I'd be interested in seeing some examples of well-written texts that switch back and forth between that and which.

    [Like any writer in English, I use plenty of integrated relative clauses introduced by that; and of the two texts you searched, the first was written for presentation and distribution at a Modern Language Association meeting in the USA, and the other had both a North American editor and an American-born first author. I can't remember any conscious choosing, but if the that to which ratio is high, that's not surprising. The real issue, though, is not what I chose on particular occasions but whether a writer who chooses which should be required to change it. And if you want "examples of well-written texts that switch back and forth between that and which", I noticed an integrated which relative in Noam Chomsky's Syntactic Structures, and that's well written. But look at almost anything picked up from Gutenberg.org. I give a bunch of examples in this earlier postin which I reported the result of searching electronic copies of a few classic novels to find how much of the book you have to read before they first use which to introduce an integrated relative. I found numbers like Charles Dickens 11%, Lewis Carroll 8%, Bram Stoker <1%, Joseph Conrad 1%, Herman Melville 1%, Emily Bronte <1%... The evidence really is there. Just look for yourself. —GKP, added 12 April 2012]

  16. Stephen Jones said,

    August 25, 2009 @ 1:10 pm

    Here's the thing formatted properly. Please delete double posting.

    But I'd be interested in seeing some examples of well-written texts that switch back and forth between that and which.

    Try Innocents Abroad, by Mark Twain. Three examples of restrictive clauses with 'that' in the Table of Contents, then he switches to 'which' in the third paragraph of the Preface, and then he seems to alternate.

  17. Stephen Jones said,

    August 25, 2009 @ 1:21 pm

    My favorite Guardian language piece is this one.

    Mayes is being perfectly sensible in this article; he is accepting that you should search corpora before making a judgement, which Marsh denies, claiming Chomsky as an authority for ignoring the British National Corpus.

    The Guardian does have at least one top-class writer on language, David Mckie who wrote the excellent Smallweed columns and is worth reading on any subject.

  18. Marcia L. Barr said,

    August 25, 2009 @ 2:35 pm

    I once had an excellent reviser who suggested using "that" when the antecedent of the relative pronoun is in immediate proximity to the relative clause and "which" as a sort of signal to the reader that the antecedent is in a more remote position in the main clause. I wonder whether anyone else has heard of that usage. But the original question is vacuous: the real issue is the all-too-common failure to set off a non-restrictive clause with commas, a kind of woolly-mindedness that seems to occur far more often in England than in the US.

  19. Aviatrix said,

    August 25, 2009 @ 2:59 pm

    I've been vaguely aware of some sort of that-which rule for a while, but knowing that grammar rules are a codification of what native speakers do, I simply use whichever one sounds right to me at the time and assume it will be the right one. It's always worked out well for me with verb conjugation and adjective placement.

    I'm curious about the original Fowler proclamation. Did they just wish there were a rule and make one up? Did they analyse a lot of texts and determine that that was going on? I can imagine reading someone's work and saying, "you know, it would sound better if you put 'which' here instead of 'that'," and then having to explain "why?" and having that balloon into a new "rule."

    I think I tend to use 'which' where it could get misread as 'that', or where the sentence already contains a demonstrative 'that.' Since 'which' is a less versatile word it can be useful to disambiguate clauses in longer sentences.

  20. Stephen Jones said,

    August 25, 2009 @ 4:09 pm

    an excellent reviser who suggested using "that" when the antecedent of the relative pronoun is in immediate proximity to the relative clause and "which" as a sort of signal to the reader that the antecedent is in a more remote position in the main clause.

    I suspect what he's referring to is 'which' being able to refer to whole clauses. To the best of my knowledge if the antecedent is a noun phrase it must immediately precede the relative (shoot me down if I'm wrong but it's late here and I'm in the middle of eating dinner).

  21. CatBallou said,

    August 25, 2009 @ 5:17 pm

    Graeme said "Microsoft Word dully enforces a rule…."
    I'm trying to think of a grammar issue that Word presents in an exciting fashion. Nothing comes to mind.
    As for "enforcing," I think that's a bit paranoid. Word suggests. If you don't like the suggestion, you don't have to take it—you can even tell Word to never flag it again.

  22. James Wimberley said,

    August 25, 2009 @ 5:57 pm

    Neal Goldfarb: "The thats outnumbered the whiches by a large margin.."
    Do the copy-editors regularly take part in Whiches Sabbaths?

    Any enlightenment on plural formation when pronouns and conjunctions are nouned? I think I'd intuitively say: I's and you's, but whys and wherefores, but which's precisely to avoid whiches.

  23. Marcia L. Barr said,

    August 25, 2009 @ 10:04 pm

    Thanks to Stephen Jones for clarifying my fuzzy understanding of my reviser's point ("he" was a "she", by the way, and although I firmly believe that the feminine is included in the masculine pronoun, I owe it to her to make the point!). So a one-word antecedent takes "that", a noun-clause antecedent takes "which", and both, of course, should be adjacent to the relative pronoun. Bravo to Aviatrix for admitting to doing what we all do–taking our own usage as the ultimate authority–but it's still nice to have a principle beyond "it sounds right to me".

  24. Joe Fineman said,

    August 25, 2009 @ 10:30 pm

    My impression, for a long time, has been that Fowler's proposal is popular among American publishers partly because it accords with most Americans' speech habits. *In speech*, a restrictive "which" sound distinctly British to me. But writing is another matter. Many — perhaps most — Americans think that the relative "that" has to be dressed up as "which" in writing. I once actually leaned over a physicist's shoulder while he was drafting a journal article, heard him mutter "that", and saw him write "which". I mentioned this on a newsgroup & got confirmation from another poster, who had never noticed his own behavior before.

    Then, publishers pay me, the copyeditor, to change "which" back to "that". There is no end to the foolishness of this world.

  25. Mark Liberman said,

    August 25, 2009 @ 11:15 pm

    Fowler's proposal is popular among American publishers partly because it accords with most Americans' speech habits

    I don't know what the relative frequency is in U.S. vs. U.K. speech, but searching for "which" in American conversational transcripts quickly turns up things like

    a lot of what i do requires a sense that there's this invisible barrier around me which people will respect

    last Sunday night we had an ice storm which took down all of our trees

    the center brick is the key brick which locks everything together

    a computer is unisex unless you design it in some sort of way which can really satisfy you and not a man

    that's that's one of the points which i don't see

    as you go up higher like in your senior level you're doing projects which are are so big and you have to have so many people sharing the same data

    you would have to map out all this all these numbers and get a graph which you weren't sure if it was okay or not

    because i've been at places which offer a lot of support and others that don't offer any

    whatever i miss at the theater then i rent or movies which i don't consider they're worth spending money for then i rent

    we have like places which serve duck here but they're duck here is considered like just this extreme delicacy

  26. Peter Taylor said,

    August 26, 2009 @ 3:40 am

    Yes, I was always under the impression that Word was simply lacking a British grammar checker and so checked British English text using British spelling and American grammar. I can't think why the Grauniad uses an American convention in its style guide, though.

  27. peter said,

    August 26, 2009 @ 3:08 am

    For what it is worth, my Australian education led me to an intuition directly contrary to the rule, something I only became aware of when writing reports with Americans. From this experience I conclude that regional differences in what is considered correct usage exist here, making any rigid insistence on such a rule even less defensible.

  28. Zora said,

    August 26, 2009 @ 4:49 am

    Before I started copyediting, I had never heard of the that/which rule. On one of my first assignments, the managing editor criticized me for not following the rule. I soon learned that this is a copyediting shibboleth. You show you know your stuff by following this arcane rule. I hate it, but follow it because I must.

  29. Stephen Jones said,

    August 26, 2009 @ 5:31 am

    I don't know about walking backwards into buzz saws, they seem to have stuck one in the middle of the trampoline and to enjoy jumping up and down on it.

    An even bigger turkey than Bulley, one scherfig, posted this:

    OK, steve, let's forget Mark Twain and Fowler (old hat) and take a giant leap forward to George Orwell in the 30's and 40's. In my opinion, in his essays, the finest writer of the English language ever . Check out his use of English

    And what happens when we go to 'Politics and the English Language'? We find an example of which used in a non-restrictive clause in the very first paragraph.

    The problem is that these people live in an evidence-free zone. It doesn't matter how often you prove them wrong, it's just irrelevant to them.

  30. peter said,

    August 26, 2009 @ 8:27 am

    Ah, Orwell. I've never understood why someone advocating ethnic-cleansing of language should be considered a hero of the left.

  31. Andrew said,

    August 26, 2009 @ 11:06 am

    I don't object to publishers adopting the that/which rule, and requiring copyeditors to follow it, as a rule of their own style. There is, though, a tendency – which in my experience is distinctively American – to treat style guides, which are really produced as a service to editors seeking to adopt a consistent style, as if they gave the rules of the English language.

    As for Microsoft, not only do they enforce the that/which rule; they get it wrong. The rule is not that one should always use 'that' if there is no comma; it is that one should always use 'that' in a defining relative clause, and while the absence of a comma is often a mark of a defining relative clause, it isn't always. So the Microsoft system ends up requiring 'that' in cases where it is certainly unnatural and possibly wrong.

  32. Stephen Jones said,

    August 26, 2009 @ 1:07 pm

    and while the absence of a comma is often a mark of a defining relative clause, it isn't always

    I fail to see how somebody punctuating according to the rules of English would not put a comma before a non-defining relative clause. The pause in speech, and the comma in writing is the marker as far as I know. Perhaps you could furnish us with some examples.

  33. Richard Hershberger said,

    August 26, 2009 @ 1:26 pm

    "Some copy-editors (like me) may implement the that-which prescription not because they consider it valid but as an efficiency based on who will be checking the piece after them. "

    When I am writing something which will be edited, I follow the same rule as in any other writing. I ignore the spurious that/which rule. I could laboriously go through my writing and adjust it to follow the rule, but the chances of this this actually improving the text is so close to zero as to make the idea ludicrous. If some copy editor feels that is a good use of his time, that is his business. The rule at least has the advantage of rarely making the resulting text worse.

  34. Christopher S. Mackay said,

    August 26, 2009 @ 2:07 pm

    Some copy-editors (like me) may implement the that-which prescription not because they consider it valid but as an efficiency based on who will be checking the piece after them.

    If I leave 'which' in place before an integrated relative clause during the copy-edit, and anyone else changes it along the way to print, all I've done is create extra work for the typesetter and leave the impression that I wasn't paying attention.

    No, what you've done is create a lot of needless work for any author who actually cares about his own prose. Just a few months ago, I had the annoying experience of having to go through the copy-edited text of my latest book and scribble STET all over it to restore the "which"s which I'd written and which had been replaced by the copy editor on the basis of this spurious rule. I write what I write because it sounds right to me. If some copy editor wants to abide by this stupid rule, feel free to write your own book. In the meanwhile, don't mess with mine. It wastes my time correcting your miscorrections, so why not save us all a lot of trouble and leave the text alone?

  35. esme said,

    August 26, 2009 @ 3:43 pm

    More interesting to me than the that-which debate is the anger (most veiled, but some obvious) directed toward copy editors. The one group it's still OK to call "stupid", apparently.

  36. Anna Phor said,

    August 26, 2009 @ 5:04 pm

    @Christoper — that seems a bit unfair to the poor copy-editor, who is then put in the position of being required to be a mind-reader who must intuit whether the particular current author cares about the shibboleth and would prefer their text be corrected according to it, or does not care at all about the shibboleth.

    It also depends a great deal on the relationship between the author, the employer of the copy-editor, and the entity which has final say over the work. I am right now sitting in front of a report that I have written but was commissioned by a government agency, and which will eventually list that agency as the author of the work, weeding through the comments of a copy-editor, who has diligently enforced the shibboleth, much to my delight, because it means that I don't have to. I have absolutely no intuition on which form should be used when, and so I'm happy someone else has done this work for me.

    I'd always assumed I had no intuition on this matter because I'm not a native speaker of American English, which is why it's so surprising to me that the Guardian has adopted this rule. Are they also abjuring "whilst" and using spellings like "color" and "odor"?

  37. Bloix said,

    August 26, 2009 @ 5:10 pm

    esme, see http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=1561#comments

  38. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 26, 2009 @ 6:56 pm

    So to what extent do copyeditors make these decisions and to what extent do publishers make them? I'm surprised that the people who consider "which hunts" a waste of time aren't blaming the publishers rather than the copyeditors, and that Christopher Mackay isn't expecting the publisher to overrule his stets. I suppose they're familiar with their own publishers and know that the copyeditors are doing this on their own initiative.

    People who don't have a copy of Fowler (as I don't) can see how the first part of his article on the subject here at Google Books. As I understand him, he wavers between stating it as a fact and proposing it as an improvement.

  39. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 26, 2009 @ 7:04 pm

    And the Fowler brothers' original version here. It's distinctly more prescriptive.

  40. Stephen Jones said,

    August 26, 2009 @ 9:42 pm

    The1908 version is much more prescriptive; I actually quite like what Fowler wrote in 1926, a heartfelt sigh at his powerlessness.

    who must intuit whether the particular current author cares about the shibboleth and would prefer their text be corrected according to it, or does not care at all about the shibboleth.

    The answer to that is simple; if the writer cared about the shibboleth he would have followed it and there would be no need to correct it.

  41. PD said,

    August 27, 2009 @ 4:22 pm

    The answer to that is simple; if the writer cared about the shibboleth he would have followed it and there would be no need to correct it.

    The question (for the copy editor) is unfortunately not whether the writer cares about the shibboleth. The shibboleth is not there for authors (Ephraimites). It is there for editors (Gileadites). Some authors (especially ESL authors, who may be struggling to retain the intended meaning of their prose through each round of editorial changes) appreciate being secured quicker passage past future Gileadites.

    As Dan Lufkin suggested humorously earlier in the comments, an author could include with his manuscript a list of editorial shibboleths he wanted to be spared. This would be an absurdity, but effective.

  42. Richard Hershberger said,

    August 27, 2009 @ 9:45 pm

    It is a fair point that this is usually not the copy editor's policy, but the publisher's. I find it incredible that any publisher thinks it a productive use of resources to pay a copy editor to make these changes, but that is their business. I suppose publishing is so lucrative an enterprise that publishers need some way to dispose of excess cash and they cannot envision a company Christmas party so lavish as to accomplish this necessary end.

    That being said, in my experience copy editors as a class tend to buy into such rules. There are I am sure any number of exceptions. If a copy editor comes to me an apologetically explains that he has to follow this moron rule imposed from above, I'll buy him a beer. More often, I find, they actually believe in this stuff.

  43. Tom said,

    August 27, 2009 @ 10:03 pm

    "If a copy editor comes to me an apologetically explains that he has to follow this moron rule imposed from above, I'll buy him a beer."

    Can I have a beer?

    – Copy editor who's paid to waste time on this shit.

  44. Andrew said,

    August 28, 2009 @ 12:04 pm

    Stephen Jones: Well, I could swear I have seen examples where Microsoft has changed 'which' to 'that' and the 'that' is very unnatural; but I must admit that right now I can't think of any. However, granting you are right about people punctuating according to the rules of English grammar, surely grammar-check exists for the benefit of people who can't be relied upon to do that. Such a person might write, say, 'I have to climb a lot of stairs to reach my office which is on the eighth floor' (where 'which' is not identifying; they have only one office). The proper amendment to this would be to insert a comma before 'which', but Microsoft won't tell them that; they'll tell them to change it to 'that'.

  45. Richard Hershberger said,

    August 28, 2009 @ 2:03 pm

    "Can I have a beer?

    – Copy editor who's paid to waste time on this shit."

    Come on over to the house. I'll do better than buy you one: I have homebrew.

  46. ellen said,

    September 3, 2009 @ 6:53 pm

    "There is, though, a tendency – which in my experience is distinctively American – to treat style guides, which are really produced as a service to editors seeking to adopt a consistent style, as if they gave the rules of the English language."

    I agree with Andrew. No copy editor with any sense thinks style guides actually have some kind of Academie Francaise authority over English. Copy editors with any kind of decent training know the difference between publication style and English grammar and between prescriptive and descriptive grammar. Certainly, the copy editors who've trained with me do.

    Ego and power play no small role here, of course. Authors who do not wish to submit to publication style are perfectly free to object to it. Depending on their clout (i.e. sales figures + pugnaciousness) they often get their way; I recall a mass market fiction author with sales in the millions at Random House who absolutely barred semicolons from his books. Shibboleths for all!

  47. Michael Bulley said,

    September 7, 2009 @ 3:29 pm

    How fascinating! I’ve only just come across this thread that I innocently initiated. I’m glad it has provoked thought and discussion, as that is what, in another comment I made to the Guardian piece, I think is healthy for the language. I admit that I opened myself up to contradiction and deserved to be shown to be wrong about Innocents Abroad.

    Can you, though, sometimes decide that, given a choice between two ways of expressing an idea, one is better than the other? I think you can, and that decision, being a judgement or a preference, cannot be wholly based on usage. Data about usage tell you only what people do. They tell you nothing about what may be good or bad style. The facts might be more useful if, improbably, they told you the state of mind of the people from whom the examples came. Did they make a conscious choice when they wrote? Did they even know there might be a choice to be made? Were they people who cared about their own language or not?

    I have more respect for the ideas of those I think want to write well than I have for the data from linguistic corpora, which tend usually not to make any distinctions of quality. Most of the entries in David Marsh’s Guardian Style Guide are incontestable. Many of them just give correct spellings. Now and again, though, a more contestable point arises, as with the which/that controversy. His book is not a usage report, but guidelines for Guardian journalists. He decided that “that” was better than “which” in relative clauses that define. It would have been bizarre for him to have based his guideline on statistics.

    A few years ago I did some proofreading for a British academic press. The first couple of books I was sent were by American authors and I was struck by their consistent use of “which” in defining clauses. I did not correct it, but just added an overall comment for the copy-editor. In nearly all the cases, I would have written “that” or used, where appropriate, the zero option (eg, “the pen I bought”). In a few, it was 50-50 and in a very few “which” might have been better. I wasn’t following any rule (there are no rules in language, of style or of the Chomskyan type). It just seemed to me that most of those sentences would have read better with “that” or, where it could be used, nothing at all. It’s a feeling, a view, a sentiment. I’d like others to agree, but you have the choice.

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