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.