That which doesn't apply to English

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A (not particularly amusing) cartoon in the July 5 New Yorker has a doctor giving a bedridden patient some food on a tray and saying: "That which doesn't kill you might give you stomach trouble."

The only reason I mention it here is that its oddly stilted wording (why not say "What doesn't kill you"?) provides an example of a case where the much-fetishized but illegitimate rule about never using which to begin an integrated relative clause is obligatorily broken: not even a New Yorker copy editor would "correct" that which doesn't kill you *that that doesn't kill you.

The supposed rule is clutched like a lucky rabbit's foot by under-informed grammar pedants, as we have noted on Language Log dozens of times. When Ann Coulter using it as a literacy test for Supreme Court justices, to take a random example, is to see prescriptive grammar pontification at its stupid worst.

The rule is a fiction, invented during the 19th century by men who thought it would be nice to clean English up a bit — men like the Fowler brothers (though at least they were well enough versed in grammar to realize that the rule would have to have a whole slew of exceptions). Yet E. B. White stuffed a dogmatic assertion of the rule into The Elements of Style in 1959, and altered the text of the rest of the book to conceal the fact that his old mentor William Strunk knew nothing of it and had never obeyed it (Jan Freeman discovered this; I discuss the matter in this recent article).

One of the cases in which absolutely no one respects the rule is where an integrated (or "restrictive") relative clause — the kind that doesn't need commas at each end — is attached to that, as we just saw from the cartoon caption. But there are several others — for example, where a preposition precedes which at the head of the relative clause (nobody corrects a country with which he was thoroughly familiar to *a country with that he was thoroughly familiar). To avoid being immediately and overwhelmingly falsified by the usage of every Standard English speaker, the rule needs a complicated bunch of exception clauses.

And to get a really good match to the usage of Standard English speakers you need to drop the rule completely. What is actually true about expert users of English, when they are not being nibbled to death by copy-editing ducks, is that they use both that and which in integrated relative clauses, in proportions that aren't very far away from being 50/50. Even E. B. White ignored the rule when he was doing what he was good at — writing English, rather than writing about English.

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51 Comments

  1. Gordon Campbell said,

    July 3, 2010 @ 6:45 am

    Why not say "What doesn't kill you"? Maybe garden path avoidance? The phrase seems, at first, to be a question.

  2. anon said,

    July 3, 2010 @ 7:00 am

    I believe the oddly stilted wording is an allusion to Nietzsche's "That which does not kill me makes me stronger."

    [Yes, it is, of course. But there is no necessity to stick with the stilted translation from Nietzsche's German: the natural English translation would use what. Anyway, my point is not about the stiltedness, but about the overwhelming preferability of which here. —GKP]

  3. Eric said,

    July 3, 2010 @ 7:10 am

    Dude–it's just because the Nietzsche quip is embedded that way in our minds. Maybe it's poorly translated by Kaufmann (or whoever), but it's solidified. Recognize.

  4. Joe said,

    July 3, 2010 @ 7:10 am

    Agree with anon.

  5. Matthew Kehrt said,

    July 3, 2010 @ 7:55 am

    I actually see nothing wrong with "That that does not kill you…". Am I alone here?

  6. Alan said,

    July 3, 2010 @ 8:28 am

    @sir mkehrt: Feste in Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night": "For, as the old hermit of Prague, that never saw pen and ink, very wittily said to a niece of King Gorboduc, 'That that is, is.'"

    To me, at any rate, "that that" looks damned odd in print, but might slip by in speech. Your mileage may vary, of course.

    Also: hi!

  7. Giles Robertson said,

    July 3, 2010 @ 9:37 am

    I agree that the origin is Nietzsche, but the reference might also be to Kanye West's song 'Stronger' [a no. 1 single].

    Yet now I listen to it again and the relevant line is "N-n-now that that don't kill me". So the conclusion must be that rap artists will walk through the valley of the shadow of prescriptivism where even New Yorker editors fear to tread…

  8. Matthew Stuckwisch said,

    July 3, 2010 @ 9:48 am

    That that which doesn't kill you might give you stomach trouble is somewhat harrowing. ;-)

  9. MJ said,

    July 3, 2010 @ 10:41 am

    In my capacity as copyediting duck, I don't come across "which" used restrictively very much in writing by US writers. So I think the that/which distinction ranks as a prescriptivist success story in the US, at least, though I'm not sure exactly what accounts for the success–perhaps in part it's the fact that no one seems to try to defend it on grammatical grounds; instead they promote it as having practical value. E.g. Edward Johnson, The Handbook of Good English, who notes right up front that the rule is an invention of usage arbiters but goes on to argue that "there is something to be said for making a strict distinction. . . .The consistent use of the pronouns can add precision and clarity to expression, and it reinforces the punctuation of sentences."

    [Familiar usage advice babble. But in truth it does not add precision or clarity, and the correct use of punctuation (putting commas before and after non-integrated constituents) needs no reinforcement. —GKP]

  10. MS said,

    July 3, 2010 @ 11:14 am

    The US success story may be partly due to MS Word giving a green line to anything other than "… that" or "…, which"

    Tiresome in a UK context as conventional usage is less prescriptive. Microsoft doesn't seem to recognise this, though.

  11. Tom Recht said,

    July 3, 2010 @ 11:17 am

    Matthew Kehrt, you're not alone. Megadeth is with you:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aK_4qOadNSo

    At 2:32: "That that doesn't kill me…"

  12. Craig Russell said,

    July 3, 2010 @ 11:39 am

    From Kanye West's "Stronger":

    Now that that don't kill me
    Can only make me stronger
    I need you to hurry up now,
    'Cause I can't wait much longer

  13. John Cowan said,

    July 3, 2010 @ 1:05 pm

    That that is is that that is not is not is not that it it is [sans punctuation]. But I wouldn't say that.

  14. SlideSF said,

    July 3, 2010 @ 1:28 pm

    The character Manny, played by John Voight in Runaway Train said it best: "Whatever doesn't kill me makes me strong!"

    [Yes, whatever is another useful word to use in translatingf Nietzsche's line. As RogerC says immediately below, Was mich nicht umbringt, macht mich stärker has the single word was, and either what or whatever will do fine as a translation. I have no idea why people use either that which or (more rarely) that that. —GKP]

  15. Rodger C said,

    July 3, 2010 @ 2:13 pm

    Two points:

    (1) Nietzsche wrote, "Was mich nicht umbringt, macht mich stärker." No excuse for eschewing the simple "What doesn't kill me …" in favor of "That which …", though I've usualy seen it as the semantically clearer "Whatever doesn't …".

    (2) When I was in junior high ca. 1960, my teacher taught me that "that" could be used only in restrictive clauses, while "which" could be used in either type of modifying clause optionally. This wasn't her idiosyncrasy; I've found it in contemporary stylebooks. Since then, "which" has been progressively limited to nonrestrictive clauses. What is driving this, other than wordprocessing correction programs, and who thought we needed a brand-new arbitrary rule?

    [Your teacher got it exactly right. It is sad that things have gone downhill, and more and more pedants want to claim (with no justification) that which in restrictive clauses is some kind of error. —GKP]

  16. Kristen said,

    July 3, 2010 @ 3:50 pm

    Roger — Point 1 — thanks, I was wondering about that.

    Point 2 – Garner is among those promoting the limitation of "which" to nonessential clauses. The AP Stylebook also prefers that usage.

    I have to confess, I've worked under AP's dictates long enough that "which" with an essential clause seems a bit off, but I don't "fix" it when I'm copyediting other people's work.

  17. Julie said,

    July 3, 2010 @ 4:57 pm

    Uh…those green lines are guaranteed to make your writing worse, not better. Word routinely attributes verbs to the wrong subject, wants to substitute the wrong homophone, and generally makes a mess of decent prose.

    I suspect that Nietzsche's quote is as used by G. Gordon Liddy. who seems to have taken it as a personal motto.

  18. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 3, 2010 @ 8:58 pm

    What does the rule need beyond these two exceptions?

    1) Use which after prepositions.

    2) Use which in that which (and give serious thought to what instead, especially if you're using that which because you think it sounds more dignified).

    I'm a no-integrated-which man (with the above two exceptions), and I worked for a publication that enforced that rule, but I don't "correct" anybody on it. Any more.

    [You can look it up in The King's English, by H. W. Fowler and his brother. They admit to about half a dozen exceptions, and also admit that there are large numbers of examples from good writers clearly showing that people do not observe it. —GKP]

  19. Rodger C said,

    July 3, 2010 @ 9:27 pm

    @Julie: Not to mention refusing to recognize "had had" as a verb.

  20. Ernie Davis said,

    July 3, 2010 @ 10:19 pm

    There is also the old joke: "He said that that 'that' that that man said was incorrect."

    Changing the 4th "that" to "which" is not an improvement.

  21. Ernie Davis said,

    July 3, 2010 @ 11:22 pm

    Toward the end of "Politics and the English Language", Orwell proposes five rules of style and then adds a sixth meta-rule "Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous." I suspect that that last meta-rule applies fairly generally. Therefore, a rule may be generally valid, even if there exist unusual cases where it doesn't hold because it leads to some horrible or confusing construction and is therefore trumped by this meta-rule. I'm not particularly arguing in favor of the "that/which" rule, just saying that the general form of argument "no one would dream of applying rule X in case Y because of problem Z" does not exclude the possibility that rule X applies in cases where problem Z doesn't arise.

    [The trouble is, Orwell's 6th rule completely gives the game away: he has no definition of "outright barbarous", he simply thinks he'll know it when he sees it, and if you write it, despite having followed his rules, he'll ding you for it. This kind of I-know-better-than-you usage pontification is simply not worth having. You have to already have the sensibilities he pretends to be teaching you before you are fit to profit from the teaching. —GKP]

  22. maidhc said,

    July 4, 2010 @ 1:57 am

    The phrase got a boost in popular culture by being featured at the beginning of the 1982 Arnold Schwarzenegger film Conan the Barbarian.

  23. micdeniro said,

    July 4, 2010 @ 8:19 am

    "That which does not kill be makes me stranger" (An unnamed British singer quoted in the Financial Times) remains as one of the best single-letter transmutations I know.

  24. Kylopod said,

    July 4, 2010 @ 9:03 am

    @Ernie Davis

    The problem with invoking Orwell is that he was talking about style, not grammar. His concern was the ways in which people use language to obfuscate, and he actually criticized a grammar pedant at the beginning of the essay. When it comes to grammar, the purists retain the knee-jerk assumption that breaking a rule is always some kind of sin, even if it is all but unavoidable under certain conditions.

  25. Kylopod said,

    July 4, 2010 @ 9:16 am

    @Alan

    >To me, at any rate, "that that" looks damned odd in print, but might slip by in speech.

    There is one "that that" construction that commonly arises in both speech and writing: when the second "that" is a demonstrative (as in, "I didn't know that that idea was yours"). I have a sort of pet peeve reaction to this construction, even though I know it's perfectly acceptable and that my reaction is not rational. The repetition just grates on me for some reason, and in writing I often change the second "that" to "this." But that brings up another issue among grammar pedants about when it's appropriate to use "this" or "that," which in practice people often use interchangeably.

    I suppose "that that doesn't apply" seems substantially more awkward because the two thats are performing very nearly the same function rather than being mere homonyms. Personally, I'd have written the cartoon's caption as "Whatever doesn't kill you…." That would seem to avoid most of the problems we've discussed (though if it really is an allusion to Nietzsche, then our criticisms are misplaced).

  26. Alexander said,

    July 4, 2010 @ 12:17 pm

    Of course the cartoon plays on the widespread popularity of the line from "Twilight of the Idols." But it may be that the clumsy "that which" translation was itself the result of following some stylistic prescription, in spite of the free relative in the German original. So, does anyone know WHICH translator is the original source of this translation? (It is not Walter Kaufmann, and I'm guessing it was not the screenwriters of "Conan The Barbarian.") And if so, is anything known about the translator's motives?

  27. John Cowan said,

    July 4, 2010 @ 3:26 pm

    All rules for punctuation are prescriptive, because punctuation is artificial, whereas language production is natural, so comparing that/which-style rules to punctuation rules is unsound.

    In the case of the rule about commas and periods always being placed before closing quotation marks, it was once universal on both sides of the Pond, as an examination of older books (e.g. at Google Books) will quickly show. The original basis for the rule was that it was easier for the small piece of type holding a comma or period to break loose or shift if it followed the closing quotation mark, which was blank near the baseline. The American side preserves this rule after the rationale for it is gone; America is often more conservative in matters of language and related fields, as is seen by the preservation of non-initial /r/ in most varieties, and by such lexical items as fall 'autumn'.

    The current British rule is a logical innovation, and those who adopted it are to be saluted. Computer-related work in America often follows the British rule as it is essential to know exactly what is inside quotation marks and what is not.

  28. exackerly said,

    July 4, 2010 @ 5:14 pm

    FWIW the lyrics to the Roseanne theme song were "What doesn't kill us is makin' us stronger", lyricist unknown…

  29. Tom V said,

    July 4, 2010 @ 5:58 pm

    It's much simpler in the original Klingon, "nal komerex khesterex" here.

  30. James said,

    July 4, 2010 @ 8:32 pm

    @John Cowan, interesting, I didn't know that was the original basis. I was told that the reason we keep the punctuation inside the quotation marks is that it looks better. Well, it does, to me, but I suspect it looks better because we (Americans) do it, and not the converse (although if I'm right in that suspicion, preferring what looks better should be a conservative force).
    I do believe we are slowly switching to the British convention. It is so much more logical that it is winning over American academics and their presses.

  31. MJ said,

    July 4, 2010 @ 11:54 pm

    @GKP

    I think you may have missed my point, which was not that the that/which distinction in fact has practical value but rather that the idea that it does is what perhaps accounts for its being accepted, or at least not rejected or condemned, by many Americans. That is, there's very little fuss over it, as far as I can tell, unlike with other rules, such as the don't-split-infinitives rule or the never-end-a-sentence-with-a-preposition rule, which even your amateur American grammarian is apt to question, or the "one of those that" plus singular verb, which persists in generating heated debate in various arenas.

    Another practical factor that may contribute to its seemingly rather neutral status is that it is seen as helping prevent overrepetition of either relative pronoun (if I recall correctly this is something 19th-century grammarians brought up in advocating for the distinction, as "which" had by then apparently more or less supplanted "that").

  32. Bloix said,

    July 5, 2010 @ 3:35 am

    "then there is the American rule for commas and periods, which is not well founded,"

    It doesn't matter whether it's well-founded or not. It's the rule. If you don't follow it, the average reader will think you've made a mistake; a more worldly reader will think you are British, or that you are aping British practice. Either way, your reader will stop thinking about what you're saying and start thinking about your punctuation. You will distract your reader as surely as if you had misspelled a word.

    The that/which distinction, by contrast is (in my humble opinion) much less likely to interrupt the flow. Even so, I generally observe it.

    There's always a risk in flouting any rule or so-called rule, and there are many rules that I observe even though I don't accept them, simply in order to avoid distracting my reader. I don't split infinitives, or say hopefully, or end sentences with a preposition. Maybe I'm wrong about that/which; perhaps my reader won't be distracted; but how can I know?

  33. elinar said,

    July 5, 2010 @ 3:55 am

    @John Cowan

    What do you mean “language production is natural”?

    Surely Standard English is a cultural artefact, and the production (and comprehension) of written language structures is a skill that needs to be learnt. And surely our intuitions about linguistic correctness are, at least to some extent, influenced by cultural standards, i.e. prescriptive rules.

    In what sense is the production of standard written language “natural”?

  34. Kylopod said,

    July 5, 2010 @ 4:15 am

    @Bloix

    Avoiding the split infinitive, or a preposition at the end of a sentence, or any of these other quasi-errors, can be just as distracting as, if not more so than, using these constructions.

  35. Marion Crane said,

    July 5, 2010 @ 8:05 am

    It may be just me, but I like the rhythm in 'That which does not kill me…' a lot more than 'What does not kill me…'.

  36. Ellen K. said,

    July 5, 2010 @ 10:01 am

    Not just you.

  37. Luke said,

    July 5, 2010 @ 10:54 am

    As a student of philosophy, it seems to me that the level of discussion on this blog concerning what exactly a grammatical rule is (and of what 'rules' are) is generally low.

    Correct me if you will, but I have not yet heard that the prescriptivists rules ARE rules, in a different sense of the term rule. Rather, I have heard the dogmatic assertion of one or another notion of what exactly a grammatical rule constitutes, without due consideration of alternatives.

    One such alternative broadly sits with the 'platonic' conception of language which Chomsky criticises as being central to 'E-language', and associates with philosophers such as Dummett.

    A grammatical rule in this sense might be thought part of a language, where a language is understood in a particular way, as some kind of object, external to speakers (perhaps a set of sentences, or an abstract object), although related to speakers in some specific way. A grammatical rule could then be devised or invented, so long as it fits with the particular abstract platonistic conception of language in question. Under this conception of language, then, one might say that using 'which' in restrictive relatives is forbidden.

    Of course, one might simply reject this conception of language (which I have been deliberately vague about) as being ridiculous. But many of those in the disputes had on Language Log may believe that a language is just as I have described, and so rejecting outright such 'platonist' conceptions of language would be to beg the question.

  38. Luke said,

    July 5, 2010 @ 11:05 am

    Why not, for example, adopt a relativist, or irrealist perspective on what grammatical rules are?

    My friend, in my response to posting some of your articles on that which is being disputed, said that many people obey the rule, many people don't. Why not then say that the notion 'grammatical rule' is capable of differential definitions, and, as a concept, is much like Wittgenstein argues the concept of a 'game' is; not capable of a clear-cut definition, perhaps, say, in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions? What theoretical gain is achieved from clinging to a certain conception of grammatical rule?

  39. Christopher S. Mackay said,

    July 5, 2010 @ 1:07 pm

    I think you may have missed my point, which was not that the that/which distinction in fact has practical value but rather that the idea that it does is what perhaps accounts for its being accepted, or at least not rejected or condemned, by many Americans.

    Well, I'm an American, and the last copy editor of a book of mine consistently attempted to replace restrictive "which" with "that," and I was forced to waste a great deal of mental energy rejecting such changes with "STET." I have to admit that in my first bookI was somewhat influenced by the supposed rule (perhaps under the annoying influence of MSWord and its persistent underlining of "which"), and even occasionally changed at a later stage what I unreflectively wrote initially, switching "that" to "which." Thanks go to GKP for pointing out how groundless so much of this prescriptivist foolishness is. Now I feel more confident in going with my own judgment of what sounds like normal English.

    And that reminds me. I had a lot of meta-quotations of text in one book and used the procedure of close quote then punctuation. Cambridge University Press (in the UK, not NYC) replaced this with punctuation then close quote (which is apparently their "house style"). So, it's not a simple UK vs. US thing.

  40. Nijma said,

    July 5, 2010 @ 2:02 pm

    "That which", rather than sounding stilted , to me sounds more like a marker for the beginning of an adage or motto.

    That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

    Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's.

    That which is not specifically prohibited, is permitted.

  41. MJ said,

    July 5, 2010 @ 2:12 pm

    @Christopher–

    I didn't say accepted by _all_ Americans. Occasionally I do come across an American writer who regularly uses "which" restrictively. But in most of the scholarly work I edit, authors observe the that/which distinction themselves.

  42. Nijma said,

    July 6, 2010 @ 1:13 am

    "One comma too many", whose topic is similar. (I'd give the link if it did not appear to corrupt this entire post, in the preview.)

    Here you go.

  43. C said,

    July 6, 2010 @ 12:16 pm

    Dear Mr. Pullum,

    Thanks so much for these anti-prescriptivist posts. I think they're fantastic reads and I admire them greatly for their wit (and pleasant venom) and the information they provide.

    I have to admit (maybe not the best thing to admit with degrees in English literature) that most of my early understanding of how to write came from reading lots and lots of books in grade school and high school, rather than from paying solid attention in grammar class. It's only later in life now, many years after the time that I received my MA, that I'm finding such joy in parsing sentences and trying to really actively understand how the language works on a nuts and bolts level (rather than intuitively, which is what my understanding through tons of reading provided; my next big book purchase will actually be your Grammar). Strangely, some of this interest in English grammar came from recently studying a completely different language, Japanese.

    Regarding "which hunting": I am glad to say that I never had The Elements of Style foisted on me, so I've been merrily using "which" in the anti-prescriptivist fashion for as long as I've been writing coherent sentences.

    Anyway, apologies to my fellow readers for this fan-boy post.

  44. Bloix said,

    July 6, 2010 @ 6:51 pm

    "Strangely, some of this interest in English grammar came from recently studying a completely different language, Japanese."

    This isn't strange at all; I would venture that most people who have even a passing interest in grammar acquired it while studying a foreign language. Most Americans, anyway – as grammar is not taught at all after elementary school, and as what is taught there is mostly wrong, most Americans don't have any sense that grammar can be useful. It's when you start to study a foreign language, and you have no intution to fall back on, that a conscious understanding of structure begins to seem important.

  45. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 7, 2010 @ 1:38 pm

    [You can look it up in The King's English, by H. W. Fowler and his brother. They admit to about half a dozen exceptions, and also admit that there are large numbers of examples from good writers clearly showing that people do not observe it. —GKP]

    I count three exceptions that they admit to. Two are the two that I mentioned: after prepositions, and in that which, which they say many writers broaden to apply any time the which "is the correlative of the demonstrative 'that'." The third is that "a certain awkwardness seems to attend the use of 'that' when the relative is widely separated from its antecedent". This gives rise to coordinated clauses of which the first starts with that and the second with which:

    "All the toys that infatuate men, and which they play for, are the selfsame thing." —Emerson

    However, they point out that the broadening of the second rule is optional: you can say that [anarthrous noun phrase] that. So is the second rule: you can say [noun phrase] that… and that…. So according to the Fowler brothers, the only exceptions you need are the two that I stated.

    (Was my use of anarthrous noun phrase right?)

    The Fowler brothers' evidence certainly shows that many writers don't follow the proposed rule, which I knew, and which is one reason I don't "correct" people. I hope I'm making it clear that I'm not suggesting that you or anyone else follow the rule. I'm disagreeing with this statement of yours:

    To avoid being immediately and overwhelmingly falsified by the usage of every Standard English speaker, the rule needs a complicated bunch of exception clauses.

    I still know of only two or at most three simple exception clauses.

  46. chris said,

    July 7, 2010 @ 5:28 pm

    The only reason I mention it here is that its oddly stilted wording (why not say "What doesn't kill you"?)

    Because people who had previously been exposed to the stilted phrasing of (a presumably common translation of) the original might be more likely to miss the allusion if you rephrased? Don't snowclones in general resist rephrasing, even if the original phrasing is awkward?

    ISTM that a lot of originally foreign sayings can have a "canonical" translation that is more recognizable than semantically-equivalent alternative translations. For example, someone alluding to (or snowcloning) the Bible in English is likely to use the King James Version, not because it is the clearest, but because it is the most recognizable.

  47. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 7, 2010 @ 6:44 pm

    But why did the translator choose the stilted "That which"?

    The earliest hit on "That which does not kill me" at Google Books seems to be from a translation (supervised?) by Oscar Levy in 1911.

  48. Rich said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 2:17 pm

    Marion Crane said:

    It may be just me, but I like the rhythm in 'That which does not kill me…' a lot more than 'What does not kill me…'.

    The first version (at least as I say it) is a line of perfect trochaic pentameter, whereas the second is a quatrameter with a stray unstressed syllable at either the beginning or the end (depending on how you analyse it). I prefer the first one too; that stray syllable seems to take the punch out of the second one.

    But perhaps I also like it in the same way that I like Wittgenstein's "Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must remain silent": maybe the slightly odd grammar gives the quotation that bit more pungency. De gustibus non disputandum, though, and the world's big enough for more than one translation of the Twilight of the Idols.

    For those who care, the translation interposes a comma betwixt "me" and "makes" that I'm pretty sure most grammar peevistas would blue-pencil like a bullet.

  49. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 9, 2010 @ 12:40 am

    You know, if you scan lines like this, you may hear from people who learned the quotation as "What does not destroy me makes me stronger" and incorporated it, with an introductory "For", into an iambic pentameter poem. Just a warning.

    I've only ever seen "tetrameter", not "quadrameter", by the way.

    The comma seems to be left over from the German, although some people would probably put a comma there in English.

  50. Paul said,

    July 24, 2010 @ 12:32 am

    We mustn't forget Anselm, whose Proslogion contains my favoritest phrase in English ever:

    "And assuredly, that than which nothing greater can be conceived cannot exist in the understanding alone: then it can be conceived to exist in reality, which is greater."

  51. Matthew Blanchette said,

    September 6, 2010 @ 9:08 pm

    Just wanted to say that Professor Pullum's paper, though forceful and truthful in its statements, has one MAJOR gramatical error — not an "Elements of Style" error, an actual error, which I'm afraid might undercut the professor's arguments when exposed to nitpickers raised from the cradle on Strunk and White.

    It's on page 3, fourth paragraph down under the section "Connective however", and reads: "Conceivably Strunk was been trying…". Perhaps a hasty copy-editor made the slip, but it potentially jeopardizes the argument in what is otherwise one of the best and most entertaining articles I've ever read on the subject.

    [Yes, it looks like I changed my mind from saying "Strunk must have been trying..." to "Conceivably Strunk was trying", and failed to delete the "been". We are all imperfect, and there really are genuine errors found in considered writing by native users of the language. There are genuine rules, and we all occasionally (quite often) violate them without meaning to. Which is not the same as choosing to ignore them, or not having any such rule. —GKP]

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