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.)