Where evidence counts for nothing and nobody will listen

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You just can't stop people putting themselves in harm's way. If they're not walking into the buzzsaw they're crashing like bugs into the windshield… As the previously referenced discussion about usage in The Guardian's online pages developed a bit further, a commenter called scherfig responded to Steve Jones's devastating piece of evidence about Mark Twain not obeying Fowler's which/that rule by saying 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 – it is, after all, several decades after Twain and still 70 years ago, and he has actually written sensibly about language (quite a lot).

What Steve immediately did, of course, was to take a relevant piece of Orwell's work and look at it; scherfig, the Orwell fan, astonishingly, had been too lazy to do this. And again his result was total and almost instant annihilation of the opponent.

Here's what Steve wrote to scherfig:

I didn't bring out Mark Twain, Michael did. And it was Fowler who was responsible for the non-rule in the first place.

If you are suggesting that we should copy Orwell, 'the finest writer in the English Language ever' then you'd better jettison your nonsense about 'which' not been used in restrictive relative clauses because his famous essay 'Politics and the English Language' is full of it being used thus, starting with the very first paragraph.

belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.

Did scherfig acknowledge that this was a point against him? Not at all. Not one bit (read for yourself).

What is going on here? People insist that they believe in the fictive rule that which is a mistake at the beginning of a restrictive relative clause; they cite examples of writers they admire, and predict that these writers would never disrespect the rule; they don't look to see, not even at the first page or so; instead they publish their unchecked claim in an online department of a national newspaper; Steve Jones checks their claim quite easily in a minute or two of research and shows that they are just plain wrong; and they refuse to accept that the evidence tells us anything. They move on to suggesting a different author, or change the subject, or post personal insults against the messenger (scherfig tells Steve, who is spot-on relevant and exactly correct, "I have come to the conclusion that you have no idea what you're talking about … you just witter on…", and also accuses Steve of claiming that there are no rules at all).

Linguistics is a very strange business to be in. Matters like what rules or regularities expert users of English are following when they construct relative clauses are not difficult like quantum mechanics is difficult. They are readily settled by inspection of text that anyone could do. And all linguists want to base on such inspection is an accurate description of the language of which the texts are a sample. Linguists believe (and could anyone seriously think otherwise?) that on the whole a correct description of the grammar of a language has to be an account of the rules or regularities that expert users of English follow when they construct sentences. That doesn't mean everything any user writes down is in compliance with the rules — we all make occasional mistakes from inattention. But it does mean that overwhelming evidence concerning a regularity in published English prose should count for something (probably quite a lot) when we're discussing English grammar.

And the overwhelming evidence says that the regularity about English restrictive clauses, in speech as well as published prose, and in cases where the users themselves would say that they were not in error and did not choose their words carelessly, is that they sometimes begin with which (a thing which I have often wondered about), and sometimes begin with that (the thing that I can't understand), and sometimes begin with neither (the thing I want to explain). The evidence is overwhelming. But people can't accept it, and insist it isn't so.

It's like being a chemist and explaining to people that mercury is poisonous and accumulates in the body and causes mental deterioration; and they just keep adding mercury to their food, and eating it and going mad, and claiming that chemists say there should be no food.

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40 Comments »

  1. Spell Me Jeff said,

    August 27, 2009 @ 6:27 pm

    I become immediately suspicious when a claim is proffered that someone is "the finest writer of the English language ever . . . ," be it Orwell, Shakespeare, or even Hunter S. Thompson. How would you verify such a thing (if verification is even the beast I'm aiming at)? It's like saying blue is the best color. Anything that follows must be taken with a pinch of salt.

  2. Leonardo Boiko said,

    August 27, 2009 @ 7:09 pm

    > Linguistics is a very strange business to be in.

    If by “strange” you mean “stressful” or “bloody maddening” …

    I think the only solution is to raise a generation educated from childhood on actual linguistics. As long as people are taught in school that an idealized standard is «the correct grammar», they will become adults who insist in feeling superior by preaching the «grammar rules».

  3. Don Campbell said,

    August 27, 2009 @ 7:58 pm

    @Leonard

    It's not just people taught in school about correct grammar. For the last couple of generations, schools haven't taught much, if any, grammar and there are still young adults who insist on feeling superior by preaching their chosen grammar rules.

    I suspect this phenomenon has more to do with feeling superior than correct grammar, and I'm now tempted to go find some research in this area to see if I can find my suspicion has some fact behind it.

  4. Garrett Wollman said,

    August 27, 2009 @ 8:17 pm

    Since when does evidence enter into matters of faith?

  5. Simon Cauchi said,

    August 27, 2009 @ 9:00 pm

    Since the first witnesses. William Paley's 1794 book gets it into his title: Evidences of Christianity. Me, I don't belong to the club, but let's not misrepresent it.

    As for sherfig and people like him, just ignore them. When tedious bores get going, one leaves the room.

  6. Charles Gaulke said,

    August 27, 2009 @ 9:07 pm

    It's the exact same phenomenon discussed here:

    http://slacktivist.typepad.com/slacktivist/2009/07/on-offendedness.html

    Only it's directed at language instead of morality (the morality of certain uses of language, if you like). One particular aspect of this kind of compulsive offendedness, discussed somewhat in that post and more in subsequent ones on the same blog, is that on some level it has to involve self-deception. It seems that, just as some people choose not to notice we know perfectly well how the eye evolved, or that it is unlikely the government wants to murder your grandparents and Stephen Hawking, these people are willfully ignorant of the lack of basis for their grammar rules, and for much the same reasons. They are hooked on feeling good about themselves in comparison to some imaginary other, and they are unable to conceive of a middle ground between absolute adherence to arbitrary rules and total nihilism. A literal reading of the Bible or a style guide, what's the difference?

    Of course this doesn't make it any easier to deal with any of these people, but I hope it makes linguists feel a little less singled out.

  7. John Cowan said,

    August 27, 2009 @ 9:10 pm

    The attitude you've called "nothing is relevant" is what it is. It's no use protesting it by appealing to empirical evidence, for it explicitly says that empirical evidence is worthless. If I believe (contrary to most people) that killing in self-defense is wrong, period, then no amount of you mentioning the names of morally worthy people who have defended it (or done it) will do anything to change my mind, and why should anyone expect it to?

    In 2005 you called this correctly. Why go on about it now, four years later? (This is a genuine question, not a rhetorical one.)

  8. Nathan Myers said,

    August 27, 2009 @ 9:28 pm

    People do eat increasing amounts of mercury, and complain that you're saying they should do without fish, or electric power, if you mention it.

    So, if the rule by which writers choose whether to use "which" or "that" is as accessible as you suggest, why is such a rule so hard to express? Has such a rule demonstrably applied by an able and pleasing writer ever been expressed?

    [I very carefully avoided stating a "rule". But I did say that "the regularity about English restrictive clauses" that becomes clear from the evidence of literature and speech alike is that there are three ways to begin them: wh-phrase, that, or nothing. And which is one of the wh-phrase words. I did not give a rule for choosing between them. Let me stress the point: some may try to sell you the snake oil of fixed, simple rules to follow for every case, but I am not doing that. Inbsp;think good writers may be choosing how to begin their integrated (= restrictive) relative clauses on the basis of a fairly subtle semantic distinction (which is preferred when introducing something new, and dispreferred when the material is presupposed), but I'm not sure about that. I'm prepared to leave it up to them. Why are people so unwilling to let the language flourish in the hands of the people who use it, and see how things work out in real contexts? —GKP]

  9. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    August 27, 2009 @ 9:50 pm

    Your paragraph starting with "What is going on here?" (the quotes make it arduous to number it) sounds exactly like a description of a debate with birthers…

  10. Richard Hershberger said,

    August 27, 2009 @ 10:11 pm

    As a point of information, the rule was not invented by Fowler. It goes back at least to the mid-19th century, when it was put forward by Goold Brown. Alfred Ayres was an early convert, and so taken with the rule than when he edited an earlier grammar by William Cobbett he went through and "corrected" restrictive clauses introduced by "which" by adding "that" in square brackets. It is really quite an astonishing act. Ayres freely acknowledged that this rule was new, but applied it retroactively. I regret that he never (so far as I know) edited Shakespeare. The corrections would be fascinating.

    The Fowler brothers get the blame because they achieved much greater notoriety than either Brown or Ayres. There is a tendency to ascribe grammar shibboleths which seem newish to Fowler(s) and grammar shibboleths which seem oldish to Bishop Lowth. There is in fact plenty of blame to share with lesser lights.

  11. Z. D. Smith said,

    August 27, 2009 @ 10:50 pm

    I think much of the disconnect comes from the fact that people have come to dismiss linguists in general as stuffy eggheads, pedants who would look at a painting and explain to you that it's just a bunch of oxides and the like on a canvas, unable to see the beauty. The refrain keeps going: listen, we're not talking about language in its objective form, the total possibilities of language out of the mouth of any yope or immigrant—we are discussing _style_ and _good usage_. So then you point to the usage of widely acknowledged masters like Twain, and they poo-poo it; so they're still arguing irrationally, of course.

    But notions like this which/that distinction — which I am quite sure is not actually upheld by a single commenter there — nevertheless have great prestige in their views. It's a tautology. It's a real rule because it's good style, and it's good style because it's a rule of English; actual frequency of usage never enters into it. Indeed, many of these folk have such dire anxieties about their own language, and dare I say unegalitarian opinions of their language cohort, that the fact that so few seemingly proficient English speakers 'succeed' in following it is further evidence of the rule's lofty stature.

    Anyway. It's probably hopeless, but I would suggest that the best way to change minds in the matter, rather than say, 'but nobody really speaks like that!' would be to try to speak to their sense of taste, what it is that touches them as good writing. Sadly, a lot of people seem to believe that they hold good writing only to be what is prescribed in a nonsensical book, regardless of what is produced by them or any of their favorite writers. So maybe you should break into the offices of the Guardian and the Times and friends, and force the editors to update their style guides under threat of violence.

  12. Nathan Myers said,

    August 27, 2009 @ 11:42 pm

    ZD: It's worse than that. If you point to Mark Twain, they say, "Mark Twain is good enough that he gets to break the rules. You're not."

  13. john riemann soong said,

    August 28, 2009 @ 2:05 am

    What these prescriptivists need to do is take a Systems and Signals class, read this paper (http://www.pnas.org/content/96/14/8028.abstract), and then come back.

    [I don't think so. The paper you reference does claim "that grammar originated as a simplified rule system that evolved by natural selection to reduce mistakes in communication", but that's just speculative blah-blah, not much different from what everyone thinks about grammar — that it's all about communication (it isn't). Nowak and Krakauer's extremely abstract application of the mathematical formalism known as game theory to how and why language might in principle have evolved has no relevance here that I can detect. What we are talking about is a very simple matter, entirely within the humanities. Dimwits think it is a grammar error to use which at the beginning of a restrictive relative clause. It isn't, and it never was. Revisionism by various misguided linguistic reform enthusiasts has unfortunately led to a widespread myth. A huge amount of time and money is wasted as a result on copy editors altering whiches to thats and being paid by the hour for their pointless fiddling. No aspect of communication, clarity, or the evolution of language has any relevance to this befuddlement. —GKP]

  14. chris said,

    August 28, 2009 @ 5:42 am

    After reading through those comments on the Guardian page, I think that part of the problem is that the comments of stevejones123 are seriously lacking in diplomacy. It's not surprising that he elicits hostile responses, since he frankly writes like a troll at times. How exactly does he hope to have any influence on the thinking of the Guardian's style editor (David Marsh) when he comes out with things like "you steal ideas from rivals, colleagues, Christmas crackers and fortune cookies"? Marsh naturally responds with sarcasm and indifference: "stevejones123: As ever, thank you for the kind words." I can appreciate stevejones123's frustration, and I think it's highly unlikely that the opinions of people like scherfig will be changed by anything short of neurosurgery, but a little politeness can go a long way. Why should people take a reasonable view of your ideas if you're not expressing them in a reasonable tone? stevejones123 could actually take a leaf out of MichaelBulley's book in this respect – MichaelBulley's ideas may be a little misguided, but at least he expresses them in a polite way that makes you inclined to listen and respond in kind.

  15. Stephen Jones said,

    August 28, 2009 @ 5:45 am

    Nathan Myers asks: "Has such a rule demonstrably applied by an able and pleasing writer ever been expressed?"

    The 'rule' has been made explicit loads of times.

    It is also of course quite unnecessary to make the rule explicit to a native speaker since he follows it anyway. And this is the problem. The native speaker doesn't need rules about what is grammatical; he has that interiorized. He does need spellling and punctuation rules (as they are both artificial constructs) and he needs advice on the different registers of English and which is appropriate for each, and on what forms are standard English and what are dialectical or sub-standard.

    The point of a prescriptivist's rule is that it will necessarily be wrong. Prescriptivists do not go through a process of thinking up ungrammatical alternatives. They take grammatical alternatives they don't like that are already in the language and make a spurious rule to back up their prejudice.

  16. Stephen Jones said,

    August 28, 2009 @ 5:56 am

    chris, Marsh has form on this. His Guardian Style Book is speckled with half-baked personal prejudices that have no justification in the language or even go clearly against standard usage.

    He thinks that you don't need to check if any of your dictats have any basis in the language as is, and sees nothing wrong with saying he 'stole the rule on which and that from a colleague on the Independent'; that is to say the Guardian Style book is decided by a cosy little cabal of Marsh, people sitting next to him at the table, and people he met in the pub.

    And he sees nothing wrong with that. He doesn't even see how this goes against the demand for fact checking that is theoretically in the journalist's code of ethics.

    There have been various other threads on the Guardian about their awful style book, and whether you're polite or rude to Marsh he does the same thing, he lays down his view and counters other views with irrelevancies.

    I won't say imagine if this happened with a science correspondent, because one of the complaints about British television and broadsheets is that it does all the time, but how can you be reasonable or polite to somebody who refuses to accept that judgements about language for general consumption should be based on evidence, or who dismisses the whole British National Corpus project on the basis of an alleged quote by Chomsky that was about something entirely different.

  17. john riemann soong said,

    August 28, 2009 @ 9:04 am

    Pullum: but one argument prescriptivists bring up is the "reason" grammar exists. I kinda agree with the view that grammar arose as a sort of linguistic version of a "CRC check" for error detection and correction within an otherwise unreliable speech stream. (Though there are other possible contexts, like early human politics…

    Prescriptivists also place undue emphasis on the problematicness of grammar errors. Yeah it's annoying, but speaking ungrammatically is merely disabling the ability to do a redundancy check on what you say. It's not going to result in the collapse of civilisation, or even a wave of redundancy suspension, because every child has an instinct to acquire the ability to speak grammatically.

    Prescriptivists generally also seem to lack the idea of what a communication system is in general. Which is why they should take a Systems and Signals course.

  18. Fred said,

    August 28, 2009 @ 9:05 am

    Perhaps this should be approached from the other side. Perhaps Dr. Pullum can provide us with more linguistic issues where ranting and proving our superiority will allow us to do some actual good. The trouble is that it's hard to get up a good rant in favor of permissiveness…

    I suggest forming a committee of scholars to steadfastly prescribe descriptivism so we can accuse violators of being atavistic prescriptivists and therefore in violation of the rules. From that point we can browbeat them at our leisure. After a short while the scherfig types will see the advantage and change sides.

  19. Stephen Jones said,

    August 28, 2009 @ 9:26 am

    On an entirely different Guardian thread I've just come across comments on the Guardian style guide and Arabic transliteration.

    If you look at the style guide it tells you to write Qur'an, not Koran, but then gives Mecca and not Makkah. No rhyme nor reason.

    When the Guardian consider their style guide to be something their style-guide chappie cooks up over breakfast it's hard to be diplomatic.

  20. Stephen Jones said,

    August 28, 2009 @ 9:58 am

    And while we are on to the fact-free world that is the Guardian Style Guide let's look at the entry for Muhammad.
    The above transliteration is our style for the prophet's name and for most Muhammads living in Arab countries, … The spelling Mohammed (or variants) is considered archaic by most British Muslims today.

    So therefore most British Muslims will be calling their child Muhammad rather than the archaic version. Err, no. According to National Statistics Online, 'Mohammed' was the 17th most common baby name in 2007, whilst 'Muhammad' came in 38th, and there has been a difference of between 21 and 37 places every year since 2003.
    http://www.statistics.gov.uk/specials/babiesnames_boys.asp

    How many minutes would it have cost Marsh to check that up? The point of course is he doesn't think he has to have any evidence for his pronouncements.

  21. Fast N. Luce said,

    August 28, 2009 @ 11:02 am

    The public is confused by the difference between the rules and laws prescribed by social institutions and the rules and laws described by science. In the social context, laws and rules are prescriptive, intentionally devised to regulate behaviour. But in the sciences, laws and rules are provisional attempts to describe observed regularities. (And for some people, the notion that such regularities arise without a prescribing intention is difficult to swallow, which confuses matters even further.)

  22. Andy Hollandbeck said,

    August 28, 2009 @ 11:03 am

    Although scherfig's original error was linguistic, I don't think the errors in his continuing arguments are necessarily so. Scherfig's problem is no longer that he's faithfully clinging to a false "rule," but that he is unwilling to consider the possibility (much less accept the fact) that he could be remotely wrong about his beliefs.

    He isn't defending his fake rule so much as he's defending his ego. He isn't defending the rule he believes, he's defending his beliefs. This is a big problem with people in general, and I hope it isn't inherent in human nature.

    Garrett has it right: "Since when does evidence enter into matters of faith?"

  23. Christopher Henrich said,

    August 28, 2009 @ 12:36 pm

    @Leonardo Boiko
    I think schools could use textbooks that are written with the insights of modern linguistics in mind. This would not be the same as teaching linguistics. The latter would prepare the students to be practicing linguists, which is not everybody's goal. The real goal seems to me to be coaching students to be able to use the formal register of the written language.

    @Don Campbell
    I recommend David Crystal's book The Fight for English as a history of prescriptivism, particularly in Great Britain. It's a sad story. One or two generations have grown up hagridden by fear of incorrect grammar, but largely uninstructed in what correct grammar might be.

  24. Sili said,

    August 28, 2009 @ 12:40 pm

    "scherfig" is an interesting choice of 'nym. I have to admit to not having read Det Forsømte Forår, but it seems to me that lektor Blomme would have been very much a prescriptivist.

  25. Anna Phor said,

    August 28, 2009 @ 1:01 pm

    Dimwits think it is a grammar error to use which at the beginning of a restrictive relative clause. It isn't, and it never was.

    I've always assumed that there's a subset of people for whom this is actually an error, or at least some sort of clunky misstep. I avoid it in formal writing for just the same reason that I avoid singular "they" in formal writing; I know that for some readers, singular "they" is not appropriate to the genre of formal written English and causes a momentary focus on style over substance. I personally react in exactly the same way to "he" or other masculine forms used in a neuter sense–I immediately start wondering why the writer has used the form (do they harbor misogynist tendencies? are they simply from a different generation where this use was acceptable?), and stop thinking about what the writer is saying.

    But you seem to be suggesting that for which-initial restrictive relative clauses, there is no subset of people with idiolects where this form is wrong or odd.

    How do you know?

  26. Robert E. Harris said,

    August 28, 2009 @ 1:15 pm

    G. Pullum's penultimate paragraph set me to laughing so hard I couldn't read on, for a few moments. Similarly, some of Handel makes my mind stall, for a moment.

    REH

  27. Timothy Martin said,

    August 28, 2009 @ 4:15 pm

    @Anna Phor: Are you talking about people who intuitively feel that using which in a RRC is wrong, or people who have convinced themselves it's wrong (and thus modified their intuitions to reflect this) based on dubious advice?

    The former group (if they exist) possess intuitions based on something actual, whereas the latter have re-trained their intuitions based on nothing more than some people's ideas about how words should be used. And that, I think, is reason to fight back.

  28. Stephen Jones said,

    August 28, 2009 @ 4:40 pm

    avoid it in formal writing for just the same reason that I avoid singular "they" in formal writing;

    But if you look at the BNC academic and scientific writing is where you most see the construction, presumably because they feel 'which' is more formal than 'that' or the zero construction.

  29. Anna Phor said,

    August 28, 2009 @ 4:50 pm

    @Timothy–I think that's a very good question; but how would you objectively tell the difference between the two groups?

    I also don't want to fight with my readers! Inform them, occasionally persuade them, but rarely do I want to fight with them–that's not the kind of writing that I do.

  30. Z. D. Smith said,

    August 28, 2009 @ 5:08 pm

    Anna, the simple and somewhat funny fact about which/that is that I do not believe there is ANY set of readers for whom this is an error, save those who would be reading your text looking for it. That is, there are indeed people who will go through a text and change all the whiches to ands, and that sort of thing. But I think even those same people, if they were able to decide to read a text without consciously hunting for certain constructions, would let them slide by without any comment whatsoever. This is somewhat borne out by the fact that all of the authorities cited by the prescriptivists have been very easily demonstrated to be users of the things we're supposed to be proscribing. The fact is that it's perfectly good English, of any register, and it will never 'sound wrong' to anybody. There will simply be certain people who, IF THEY DECIDE TO LOOK FOR IT, will claim that it's wrong and barbaric.

  31. Stephen Jones said,

    August 28, 2009 @ 5:34 pm

    I think Ana will find singular 'they' exceptionally common in formal writing when preceded by words such as 'anybody' or 'everyone'. In these phrases any phrase you use will annoy somebody and the 'neutral' 'his or her' annoy more people than the other three combined.

  32. dr pepper said,

    August 28, 2009 @ 6:22 pm

    re: Mohammad/Muhammad. The "varients" include "Mehmet"and "Mahmoud", which are certainly pronounced differently, so spelling them "Muhammad" would be wrong.

    Also, i find it strange when we suddenly started using "muslim" a few years back, when i still hear native speakers of both arabic and farsi say "moslem" all the time.

  33. Timothy Martin said,

    August 28, 2009 @ 6:28 pm

    Anna Phor asked how would you objectively tell the difference between the two groups?

    Well I think people's reactions when they read a sentence that just sounds wrong to them are quite indicative, for one. Read the comments about various questionable phrasings on Language Log, and you'll see many remarks such as, "That doesn't sound right to me. What I would say instead is…"

    But when people have got their shorts all up in a bunch over some "grammatical error" that they learned about academically, the comments read much more like Mr. Marsh's article. There is a lot of self-righteousness, many appeals to logic and clarity, etc. They don't have the tone of innocent "Huh? I didn't understand that" that people get when they hear a sentence that simply doesn't agree with the grammatical rules they learned intuitively.

    Now if you want something more objective than that, I can't really provide a good answer. But I would think that a linguist could. After all, linguists have been recording subtle dialectual differences between speakers of the same "language" for quite some time, so surely there must be ways of telling that different people have intuitively learned different grammars. There must be ways of differentiating peeves from naturally-learned grammatical rules.

  34. Stephen Jones said,

    August 28, 2009 @ 7:13 pm

    Mohammad/Muhammad. The "varients" include "Mehmet"and "Mahmoud", which are certainly pronounced differently, so spelling them "Muhammad" would be wrong.

    Mahmoud is not a variant of Mohammad, but an entirely separate Arabic name. Mehmet is a Turkish name not an Arabic one.

    Also, i find it strange when we suddenly started using "muslim" a few years back, when i still hear native speakers of both arabic and farsi say "moslem" all the time.

    What we are dealing with is the question of the Latin alphabet transcription of the three Arabic short vowels, kasra, fatha, and damma. These can be transcribed by 'i' or 'e', 'a' or 'e', and 'o' or 'u', respectively. Accordingly whether the Latin alphabet transcription is 'Moslem' or 'Muslim' or 'Mohammad' or 'Muhammad', or "Mohammed' doesn't matter; the word is the same in Arabic and pronounced the same independent of the English spelling. The problem of course is that the pronunciation of the short vowels varies by region, so you may hear them as different English letters.

  35. Tom said,

    August 29, 2009 @ 10:33 am

    @ Z. D. Smith

    I'm not sure it's true that prescriptivists fail to notice restrictive "which" when not in peeve mode. I'm someone for whom restrictive "which" sounded just fine until a few years ago, when I found myself in a job where my livelihood depended on copy editing books for a press that enforced Fowler's which/that distinction. Now I find that when I run across a restrictive "which" in my pleasure reading, even though I know there's nothing wrong for it, it distracts me. Instead of following what the author is saying, I think about the bloody word, and my fingers twitch for the red pencil. It's damned irritating. I want my witch-insensitivity back.

    That said, I think I still usually fail to notice the "misuse" in speech.

  36. J. W. Brewer said,

    August 29, 2009 @ 11:05 am

    If you click through to the fairly creepy document linked from this British gov't website http://www.communities.gov.uk/publications/communities/cohesionreportingdiversity you will be informed that not only is "Muslim" preferred but that "Many regard 'Moslem' as a term of abuse" (p. 19, which is p. 25 of the pdf). The basis for this perception held by an unspecified "many" is not explained, perhaps on the theory that if one's overriding goal is to avoid giving offense it's not productive to figure out if the offense-taker actually has some sort of plausible justification for the reaction.

    My unconfirmed recollection is that Moslem was the standard U.S. spelling when I was younger but has decidedly changed, whereas Muslim was always more common (if not uniform) in British contexts.

    The one non-ridiculous rationale I have heard for the u over the o (although I don't know how empirically plausible it is) is that of course English-speakers will not regard either the u or the o as an instruction to produce a damma but will use a pronunciation involving an English phoneme the relevant letter represents in the speaker's dialect. The o is supposedly more likely to cause an English-speaker to utter a result that sounds to an Arabic speaker like a different Arabic vowel, resulting in a different Arabic word with a meaning that is likely to be inappropriate in context (whether comically so or offensively so I don't recall). Using the u spelling supposedly mitigates that risk.

  37. mollymooly said,

    August 29, 2009 @ 11:32 am

    As a point of information, the rule was not invented by Fowler. It goes back at least to the mid-19th century, when it was put forward by Goold Brown.

    Indeed, I have sympathy with 19th-century attempts to regularise relative clauses; 18th-century prose can be confusing to me, and I assume to most modern reasons, because commas are used indiscriminately to mark off both restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses. The thing that the 19th-century reformers seem not to have realised is that, once you've agreed a rule for commas, you don't need to invent a that-which distinction as well. The commas-rule is more intuitive, since it corresponds to the prosodic distinction made in speech, whereas the that-which distinction is arbitrary.

  38. Stephen Jones said,

    August 29, 2009 @ 2:29 pm

    it's not productive to figure out if the offense-taker actually has some sort of plausible justification for the reaction.

    It's inventing offense in order to feel offended. A certain subset of British Muslims are rather good at it.

    The o is supposedly more likely to cause an English-speaker to utter a result that sounds to an Arabic speaker like a different Arabic vowel, resulting in a different Arabic word with a meaning that is likely to be inappropriate in context (whether comically so or offensively so I don't recall).

    I rather doubt it; apart from anything else British Muslims are notorious for their ignorance of Arabic, and I've never heard an Arabic Muslim complain about the spelling. And the only other Arabic vowel that could be referred to is the waw, which is /u:/ (except in loan words where it can also represent a short 'o' or 'u', Arabic using the three long vowels to transcribe all foreign vowel sounds).

  39. Stephen Jones said,

    August 29, 2009 @ 2:42 pm

    For unsubstantiated nonsense how about this from the reporting diversity .pdf Brewer referred to.
    By spelling Gypsies with a ‘y’ rather than an ‘i’ you get their name right.

    Since both spellings are given as variants in the SOED, and the term used to refer to themselves is 'Rom', I'd like to know where on earth the guy got this pearl from. (Incidentally all the people writing the report are journalists and editors, so don't be surprised at the almost total lack of evidence or fact checking).

  40. Z. D. Smith said,

    August 30, 2009 @ 12:21 am

    Tom,

    You're possibly quite right. In which case I will amend or weaken my proposition for those that demand it, and say that there is no natural speech community whose members would find restrictive 'which' either confusing or solecistic. The only English speakers who would it find it thus are those who have been artificially trained or conditioned to—either passively, in your case, or actively, in the case of many others, I suspect—and thus they should not be particularly catered to. If a grammatical "rule"'s survival depends on being artificially perpetuated, through drilling or professional pressure, I find it wholly unworth heeding.

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