Preaching the incontrovertible to the unconvertible

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I guess that if doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity, it is insane for me to imagine that I could do any good by telling the readers of The Chronicle of Higher Education that the rule banning which from restrictive relative clauses is "a time-wasting early-20th-century fetish, a bogeyman rule undeserving of the attention of intelligent grownups." But that's what I do in the post published at one minute past midnight on the 71st anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack. "A Rule Which Will Live in Infamy," I called it. I blame Stan Carey for infecting me with my false optimism about changing people's minds: on his blog "Sentence first" last year he actually reported getting some traction: according to a Twitter message he saw, he actually converted an editor.

I probably won't convert any American academics. The most likely outcome of my rehearsing the familiar descriptivist arguments (look at the evidence, for heaven's sake), and recounting the history (how the rule emerged out of the late 19th century as a recommended reform but was mistaken by American editors and teachers as a statement of approved legislation), will be commenters insisting that they plan to ignore me and continue enforcing the rule because it is worth taking time and trouble to "be clear" (yawn). You can't talk people out of their positions on this; they do not want to be confused with facts.

And to be honest, I have to admit that some of them are between a rock and a hard place: if you want the stupid TA to give you an A on your paper, and said stupid TA insists on no passives and no which-relatives, what options do you have? If you want to publish your paper in a high-impact psychology journal, and its brain-dead editor insists on no split infinitives and no which relatives and no uses of since in its inferential meaning, what can you do? Some people live under savage and unyielding oppression of this sort. But I thought it was worth speaking out anyway. The way one does about Syria or North Korea. The tyrants are not listening to me, but I just want to have said it: I do not approve of tyranny.

Nor do I approve of ignoring evidence. When the brothers Fowler were writing The King's English (published 1906), Bram Stoker's fine novel Dracula was in the bookstores (as it still is today, never having been out of print). Let me give an approximation to an analysis of Stoker's usage by searching the text of that book very quickly for four sequences likely to be the beginnings of restrictive relative clauses: "a xxxx which", "the xxxx which", "a xxxx that", and "the xxxx that", where "xxxx" is any lower-case word. In most of these the which or that is likely to be introducing a restrictive relative clause modifying the noun xxxx, as in examples from the novel like the glimpse which I got of it, the peasant that you tell me of, a country which was full of beauty, or the coach that brought me here. I didn't read all the examples, but I did correct the results by removing the cases with "the fact that", which is not a relative clause construction (it's a noun-plus-complement construction). Here are the figures:

a(n) xxxx which 34
the xxxx which     65
a(n) xxxx that 47
the xxxx that 90

In 42% of these phrases Stoker used which, and in 58% he used that. Very roughly a 2 to 3 mix of the two types of relative, in other words. To say that in Bram Stoker's language all the 42% of cases that used which were sporadic grammar errors is patently ridiculous. The phrases in question were incontrovertibly grammatical and entirely acceptable in style terms; and they still are.


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