A decline in which-hunting?

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Email from reader J.M.:

As I was perusing LL this afternoon, the title of a post you wrote caught my attention: “Metaphors which you are used to seeing in print“. I know that the that/which distinction is becoming less and less distinct, but I still thought it was generally practiced in academia (I am not necessarily a proponent of the distinction, but I generally thought it was still preserved). However, in only the past couple of weeks, I have come across several examples of “restrictive which” (in your post title, a textbook for the sociolinguistics class I am teaching (published in 2007), as well as a non-fiction book on spirituality (published 2011)). Can I assume now that it is customary practice to ignore that distinction in published or collegiate writing? I didn’t realize the elimination of that distinction had progressed so much from when I was in college (7 years ago).

Ironically, my title “Metaphors which you are used to seeing in print” was a quotation from George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language”, and specifically from the first of his six “rules that one can rely on when instinct fails”:

1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print

And that example is the last of 20 “restrictive relatives” introduced by which in Orwell’s essay, compared with 15 introduced by that, for an overall which-ing rate of 20/35 = 57%.

In fact, the historical tendency is apparently in the direction of less frequent use of which to introduce such clauses (which CGEL calls “integrated relatives”) — see “A quantitative history of which-hunting“, 9/5/2012, for some evidence. This trend probably results in part from the sort of miseducation that J.M. apparently suffered.

For a summary of the sad history of this intellectual fraud, see Geoff Pullum’s COHE column “A Rule Which Will Live In Infamy“, 12/7/2012. And for more discussion of the topic than any sensible person could possibly want, here are some earlier LL posts:

Sidney Goldberg on NYT Grammar: Zero for Three“, 9/17/2004
Which vs. That: I have numbers!“, 9/19/2004
Which vs. that: A test of faith“, 9/20/2004
Which vs. that: Integration gradation“, 9/23/2004
Don’t do this at home, kiddies!“, 5/3/2005
What I currently know about which and that“, 5/10/2005
Five more thoughts on the That Rule“, 10/26/2005
Ann Coulter, Grammarian“, 10/7/2005
That which doesn’t apply to English“, 7/3/2010
Which-hunting in uncomprehending darkness“, 5/4/2012
Preaching the incontrovertible to the unconvertible“, 12/6/2012

These are the which-examples from Orwell’s essay (leaving out the passages by other writers, real or imaginary):

Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.

Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble.

A newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image, while on the other hand a metaphor which is technically “dead” (e.g. iron resolution ) has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness.

But in between these two classes there is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves.

These save the trouble of picking out appropriate verbs and nouns, and at the same time pad each sentence with extra syllables which give it an appearance of symmetry.

In certain kinds of writing, particularly in art criticism and literary criticism, it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning.

The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another.

It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug.

One of these is superfluous, making nonsense of the whole passage, and in addition there is the slip — alien for akin — making further nonsense, and several avoidable pieces of clumsiness which increase the general vagueness.

Professor Hogben (2) plays ducks and drakes with a battery which is able to write prescriptions, and, while disapproving of the everyday phrase put up with, is unwilling to look egregious up in the dictionary and see what it means;

When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases — bestial, atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder — one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker’s spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them.

Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties.

I should expect to find — this is a guess which I have not sufficient knowledge to verify — that the German, Russian and Italian languages have all deteriorated in the last ten or fifteen years, as a result of dictatorship.

There is a long list of flyblown metaphors which could similarly be got rid of if enough people would interest themselves in the job;

To begin with it has nothing to do with archaism, with the salvaging of obsolete words and turns of speech, or with the setting up of a “standard English” which must never be departed from.

On the contrary, it is especially concerned with the scrapping of every word or idiom which has outworn its usefulness.

Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

And here are the 15 examples of integrated relatives introduced by that:

It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language.

As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed

In real life it is always the anvil that breaks the hammer, never the other way about:

It is often easier to make up words of this kind (deregionalize, impermissible, extramarital, non-fragmentary and so forth) than to think up the English words that will cover one’s meaning.

Now that I have made this catalogue of swindles and perversions, let me give another example of the kind of writing that they lead to.

The first sentence contains six vivid images, and only one phrase (“time and chance”) that could be called vague.

Yet without a doubt it is the second kind of sentence that is gaining ground in modern English.

A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions

Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church.

The debased language that I have been discussing is in some ways very convenient.

Nor does it even imply in every case preferring the Saxon word to the Latin one, though it does imply using the fewest and shortest words that will cover one’s meaning.

When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualizing you probably hunt about until you find the exact words that seem to fit it.

Afterward one can choose — not simply accept — the phrases that will best cover the meaning, and then switch round and decide what impressions one’s words are likely to mak on another person.

But one can often be in doubt about the effect of a word or a phrase, and one needs rules that one can rely on when instinct fails.



  1. Coby Lubliner said,

    July 25, 2013 @ 3:32 pm

    Hasn’t the which/that issue has always been a purely American one? I don’t quite see the point in all the citations from a British author.

  2. Morten Jonsson said,

    July 25, 2013 @ 3:57 pm

    @Coby Lubliner

    Largely American, I think, but not purely, given that it was an Englishman, Fowler, who suggested making the distinction.

  3. Michael Briggs said,

    July 25, 2013 @ 4:01 pm

    Not a burr under a purely American saddle. Fowler had the same itch. Wikipedia notes:

    The distinction between the relative pronouns that and which to introduce restrictive relative clauses with non-human antecedents is a frequent point of dispute.

    For clarity, we can look at a slightly modified version of the example above:

    (1) The building company, which erects very fine houses, will make a large profit. (non-restrictive)
    (2) The building company that/which erects very fine houses will make a large profit. (restrictive)

    Of the two, only which is commonly used in non-restrictive clauses. The dispute concerns restrictive clauses: in informal American speech and in formal and informal British English that or which are both commonly used in these clauses, but in formal American English, references generally specify only that, or reduction to a zero relative pronoun (see below). This rule was proposed as early as 1851 by Goold Brown. It was championed in 1926 by H.W. Fowler, who said, “If writers would agree to regard that as the defining [restrictive] relative pronoun, and which as the non-defining, there would be much gain both in lucidity and in ease. Some there are who follow this principle now; but it would be idle to pretend that it is the practice either of most or of the best writers.” Stanford linguist Arnold Zwicky claims that it is generally considered “a really silly idea” among linguists. In the U.S., the Chicago Manual of Style, for instance, states it as a rule[need quotation to verify], and the rule is often—though not generally—observed in copy-edited prose in other publications.

    Which cannot correctly be replaced by that in a restrictive relative clause when the relative pronoun is the object of a non-stranded preposition; in this case which is used, as in “We admired the skill with which she handled the situation.”[the example is also taken from The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language].[10]

  4. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    July 25, 2013 @ 4:21 pm

    Fowler certainly advocated it, but as Michael Briggs’ quotation shows, he did not suggest that it actually was a rule of English: I think it’s true that this belief is on the whole American (though we recently saw some evidence that The Guardian, I think, had adopted it).

  5. Jonathon Owen said,

    July 25, 2013 @ 5:37 pm

    Not only is the rule not in decline, as my old post shows, but it’s less enforced in academia, as the charts here show. And the data from my thesis shows that it’s one of the rules most frequently enforced by copy editors.

  6. Martin J Ball said,

    July 25, 2013 @ 7:16 pm

    “non-fiction” ??

  7. Adrian Morgan said,

    July 25, 2013 @ 8:50 pm

    You know, one can read many a mention of people like Fowler without having a clue who they actually were. Perhaps because he is associated with that/which distinction, I’ve always unthinkingly assumed Fowler was some American.

  8. Xmun said,

    July 25, 2013 @ 10:50 pm

    @Adrian Morgan
    Why not read Fowler’s biography? See Jenny McMorris, The Warden of English: The Life of H. W. Fowler, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2001, ISBN 0-19-866254-8

  9. Xmun said,

    July 25, 2013 @ 11:02 pm

    My point being that he had more strings to his bow than the work for which he is best known, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, first published in 1926.

  10. Lane said,

    July 26, 2013 @ 3:24 am

    If I can remember rightly (my books are following me after a transatlantic move) Fowler admitted that that/which had arrived to his generation in a “mess”. So yes, it’s correct that he didn’t say no-restrictive-which is a rule of English, but he wanted to neaten things up.

  11. Richard Hershberger said,

    July 26, 2013 @ 6:48 am

    There is a persistent myth that this bogus rule was originated by Fowler (or the Fowler brothers). It actually had been floating around since the mid-19th century. Goold Brown is the earliest proponent I know of, and it was subsequently rediscovered by the pseudonymous Alfred Ayres (who, like White, merrily “corrected” text originally written years earlier). I don’t doubt that the Fowler imprimatur popularized it, but it was an older bit of flotsam in the ocean of English grammar.

  12. f campbell said,

    July 26, 2013 @ 4:53 pm

    I honestly never knew there was a rule about using “that” in defining relative clauses until very recently! I am from the UK. Here is my opinion. There are two kinds of grammar rules. Firstly, there are rules which serve a useful purpose. Secondly, there are rules which are only there for the sake of being rules. Sticking to “which’ in non-defining relative clauses is the first kind of rule…think about it. It sends a useful message to the reader about what is coming next. The idea that we can only use “that” in defining relative clauses is the second kind of rule. It does not serve any purpose. It is just there for the sake of being a rule.

  13. Nathan said,

    July 28, 2013 @ 10:08 am

    Despite having two or three English teachers who taught me all manner of grammar shibboleths and zombie rules in my junior high and high school years, I never heard of this one at all until well after graduating from college.

  14. mollymooly said,

    August 5, 2013 @ 11:10 am

    It’s many happy years since I was last exposed to the Microsoft Word grammar checker. IIRC the “British English” language setting affected spelling (obviously), and perhaps punctuation, but not its advice on choosing between ‘that’ and ‘which’. I suspect that, for many BrEng speakers, MSWord has been their only exposure to the rule.

  15. Write Out Editing Services said,

    September 12, 2013 @ 9:44 pm

    […] is starting to appear more and more frequently before restrictive relative clauses.This article on Language Log explores the phenomenon of “which” occurrence in restrictive relative […]

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