Check all boxes

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What a complete disaster the which/that rule (the one saying you're not allowed to use which to begin a restrictive relative clause) actually turns out to be in the lives of American users of English. It instils fear in them lest they be found to be doing something wrong; they tremble at the thought of what a writing tutor might say about their writing, and cower before their word processors; but it doesn't help them, it just ruins their lives.

If you type "Check all boxes which apply to what you are looking for" into a Microsoft Word file it will be identified as a grammar error (the version I verified this on was Word 2008 for Mac 12.3.1). The highest-ranked proposed correction that Word will give you (insertion of a comma) turns it into what appears in the Help box for the Additional Information section when you are trying to enter a Home Wanted posting at Sabbatical Homes:

Additional Information: Check all boxes,
which apply to what you are looking for.

What a grammar disaster.

The writer of the help text has chosen the version that has only the unintended meaning — the insane meaning rather than the sensible one. (I came upon it because I'm looking for a temporary home. I plan to spend next fall at Brown University, so I'm taking some preliminary steps to look for accommodation in Providence, Rhode Island. If you'll have a house or apartment to rent or share by next summer, get in touch.)

Punctuated as shown, the instruction quoted above means firstly that you have to check all the boxes (which makes them all pointless), and secondly that all of them apply to what you are looking for, no matter what that might be. Clearly this is insane.

What the writer of the page was trying to say was that you should check all applicable boxes. Almost certainly the help text was composed in Microsoft Word, and the grammar error came up, and the hapless individual who was writing the text unwisely trusted it and put in the disastrously disambiguating comma, locking in the stupid meaning rather than the sensible one.

The second "correction" suggested for the perfectly correct phrase in question is an unnecessary but familiar one: Check all boxes that apply to what you are looking for. But at least that has the right meaning.

For the benefit of those of you who have never seen any of the huge number of Language Log posts that have been devoted to this topic in the past (Arnold Zwicky has provided a very useful reference list of them on his blog), let me just offer a reminder of what the relevant grammatical facts are.

Check all boxes that apply and check all boxes which apply are both grammatical and both have the sensible meaning ("check all applicable boxes"). It is the commas around non-restrictive relative clauses that identify them in written English, not whether the first word is which or that. Despite knowing this, Henry W. Fowler and his brother proposed more than a hundred years ago that English should be modified by banning which from restrictive relatives. Then (said the Fowlers) one could say that which could introduce only a non-restrictive relative clause. The proposal was unmotivated, unimplementable, and stupid. (One reason it doesn't work is that you still have to use which in restrictive relatives like all questions for which you have answers, because *all questions for that you have answers is incontestably ungrammatical. The Fowlers knew this but set it aside along with half a dozen other little problems.)

The reform did not catch on among users of English. When President Roosevelt described December 7 as "a date which will live in infamy" he was using ordinary grammatical English, not making some kind of a slip. But, unfortunately, almost all copy editors in the USA are under instructions to enforce Fowler's stupid rule (British editors wouldn't dream of it), and they do so, and they get paid for it. Microsoft Word tries to enforce the rule as well — but is too dumb to identify the right clauses to apply it to (at least the more intelligent copy editors know when to put in a mistakenly omitted comma and when to alter it by making the pointless which to that change).

It seems extremely likely that the poor help text author was tempted by Word into accepting its brainless suggestion for altering his or her original prose.

Returning to the matter of the Sabbatical Homes website, I will add that things got worse and worse as I struggled on with it. Because of the actual content of the Additional Information check-boxes, I couldn't understand what I was being asked to do even after I had decoded the above botch. Among the options were that you could check "On campus" or (a separate option) you could check "Off campus". Those are mutually contradictory. So I faced a maddening paradox as I tried to figure out their intentions:

  • Option 1: Assume that choices like "On campus" and "Off campus" are requirements or preferences. In that case it is clearly possible to enter a contradiction: No one can rationally require or prefer a place that is both on campus and off, which suggests the site designers expect the user to check only one of the two, but leave the user free to check both of them and thus create a request that is impossible to fulfill. Yet that doesn't seem reasonable: They could have programmed it so if you choose the "On campus" button you can't choose the "Off campus" button: the software could have made it impossible to check both. So perhaps they did not intend them as requirements or preferences. That leads me to Option 2.

  • Option 2: Assume that the choices in question are merely things that would be acceptable. In that case, checking both "On campus" and "Off campus" would be consistent (it would indicate that I would accept either). But that implies that they are trying to make me list all the things I do not care about. As it happens, I don't care whether there is wallpaper or emulsion paint in the bedroom; I don't care whether the window fastenings are brass or stainless steel; I don't care whether the coat stand is to the left of the front door or the right . . . It is irrational to try and make a list of things someone might accept. It would go on forever. What needs to be listed is just the things the person wants to stipulate concerning what they want or definitely won't accept — their requirements or preferences. And that leads us back to Option 1.

I truly wasn't sure what they wanted me to do. It's one of the worst bafflers I've ever seen on a website. And it wasn't the only one. They also had a question that seemed to be about the minimum rent I was willing to pay. I know what it is to state the maximum I can pay given my budget; but a minimum? Why wouldn't the minimum be zero for everyone? I was genuinely mystified. I have to assume that the question was mistakenly copied over from the page where people enter homes that are available. It makes sense for people who are renting out a property to specify a minimum rent, but not for people who are seeking to obtain one.

Utterly incompetent grammar; wildly illogical questionnaire design. Bad web design is a constant frustration, almost every day. I checked boxes and clicked choices at random sometimes as I tried to put my posting together. I hope the resultant ad serves its purpose. But I have little optimism that it will. So if you've got even so much as an attic in Providence you might be able rent out to me for just the second half of 2012, I'm on Gmail.com with my surname as my login name, and you can email me.

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