One comma too many

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Jonathan Falk did a double-take, and quite rightly, when he saw this opening sentence in a recent article by Megan McArdle in the Business section of The Atlantic:

Oddly enough, the New York Times health blog has an item on performance reviews, which suggests that they're probably a bad idea.

Unh? They're saying that the mere fact of the New York Times health blog having an item on performance reviews makes performance reviews ipso facto a bad idea? Could they possibly think that?

Finally the penny dropped, and he realized he was supposed to take the relative clause as restrictive. Under the intended sense, what suggests performance reviews are a bad idea is not the fact of the New York Times health blog having published the item; it is the content of the item.

What has gone wrong with McArdle's writing here? Could the initial misunderstanding be some kind of vindication of the purported that/which rule so beloved of the Fowler brothers?

No, it isn't. But the comma after the word reviews was an intelligibility-wrecking error. The sentence clearly doesn't express its intended meaning in a way that the grammar of Standard English allows.

In the terminology of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, McArdle's relative clause is supposed to be an integrated one, integrated into the structure of the noun phrase whose noun it modifies. Integrated relative clauses are not set off with commas. The whole noun phrase, if properly punctuated, would be an item on performance reviews which suggests that they're probably a bad idea.

By putting in her comma, McArdle forced the relative clause to be read (by anyone who follows the usual constraints of written Standard English) as nonrestrictive (or supplementary, in CGEL's terms), and that kind of relative clause it is naturally read as having a clause as the constituent it is semantically associated with — what CGEL calls its anchor. (In She insulted me, which made me angry, the part after the comma is a supplementary relative clause, and its anchor is the clause before the comma. Semantically, it says that what made me angry was the event constituted by her insulting me. Arnold Zwicky has proposed calling this a summative supplementary relative. They have been deprecated by some prescriptive grammarians, a point that I return to at the end.)

If McArdle wanted to have a sort of mental pause before the clause about performance reviews being a bad idea, so that the following phrase came as an afterthought, it would have been better to use coordination and the pronoun it instead of a relative clause:

Oddly enough, the New York Times health blog has an item on performance reviews, and it suggests that they're probably a bad idea.

If not, and she intended a relative clause of the integrated type, she should have left the comma out:

Oddly enough, the New York Times health blog has an item on performance reviews which suggests that they're probably a bad idea.

If she wanted to make sure, redundantly, that no one would be tempted to read the relative clause as supplementary and thus nonrestrictive (though they shouldn't, if there's no comma), she could have used the option of introducing it with that, since this virtually never introduces supplementary relative clauses any more; so she could have written this:

Oddly enough, the New York Times health blog has an item on performance reviews that suggests that they're probably a bad idea.

(I don't like the double occurrence of that very much, but it's entirely grammatical, and many copy editors would insist that this is the version to pick.)

Another way to accomplish the same thing, since the relative clause happens to be of the kind where the relativized element is the subject, would have been to use a nonfinite clause with a gerund-participial verb as modifier instead of a relative clause:

Oddly enough, the New York Times health blog has an item on performance reviews suggesting that they're probably a bad idea.

That's probably the neatest and tightest version, in my opinion. But any of the above suggestions would be all right. What she wrote is not. It's actually ungrammatical. Not because of the which (integrated restrictive relatives allow either which or that at the writer's discretion, though American copy editors insist on needlessly changing every restrictive which to that wherever they can get away with it), but because of the comma.

What do we learn from this?

First, expert speakers and writers make mistakes. When Language Log pours scorn on the promoters of stupid rules that do not reflect the syntactic reality of Standard English and never did (the that/which rule, the mythical ban on split infinitives, the bar against singular antecedents for they, and so on), the point being made is not that there are no rules and you can do as you like when you write. Rather, there are facts about what the correct rules are, and it is possible (if sometimes rather tricky) to figure out what the correct rules say. Speakers and writers who unintentionally deviate from what the correct set of rule specifies have made grammatical mistakes. Their lifelong experience in using the language does give them real expertise, but it does not give them infallibility.

Second, the principle that supplementary relative clauses are flanked by commas and integrated ones aren't is really important. It can make the difference between saying what you meant and saying something totally insane that you didn't intend.

Third, newspapers and magazines still need copy editors. It is just possible that The Atlantic actually employed one on McArdle's post, and perhaps saw the which and popped in a comma before it to comply with the fictive that/which rule, but it seems unlikely. It was probably just that McArdle herself didn't realize that by making her relative clause an afterthought with that comma she had unintentionally made it extremely likely that it would be understood as a supplementary relative, and the main clause would be the obvious anchor.

And finally, a fourth point: you can't base good prescription on bad description. (Recall Zwicky's warning against "unexamined grammatical dogma that's been transformed into folk linguistics (and bad advice)".) There is a prejudice against what Zwicky calls summative supplementary relative clauses (like She insulted me, which made me angry). Some prescriptive grammarians (Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, under which, cites Lurie, Barnard, Bernstein, and Copperud as examples) want to say that it is bad to construct sentences with summative relatives. But that simply doesn't enable us to understand what went on when Jonathan Falk (like me, and quite possibly you too) did that double-take on reading the McArdle example.

The misreading occurs because the syntax of English does, unquestionably, allow summative supplementary relative clauses as a fully natural and familiar construction. It's not you that can be accused of a grammatical error because of your misreading: you kept your part of the bargain. You (if you're like Jonathan and me) interpreted the relative clause as supplementary because of that pesky incorrect comma, and since it didn't immediately follow a suitable noun as anchor, you read it as summative. A grammarian who tells you that you shouldn't have because the summative relative is "vague" and therefore bad is a grammarian who's a damn fool. The summative relative is in most cases amply clear and precise enough, fit to be seen in the most excellent prose. But McArdle didn't intend to write one.

[Or did she? After writing this post, I was persuaded by an alert reader to change my mind. See this newer post for the recantation and further discussion. —GKP]


  1. John Cowan said,

    May 20, 2010 @ 1:42 pm

    > It is just possible that The Atlantic actually employed one on McArdle's post, and perhaps saw the which and popped in a comma before it to comply with the fictive that/which rule, but it seems unlikely.

    On the contrary, it seems extremely likely to me. More and more people are internalizing the rule, at least for writing; I wouldn't be surprised to see it a rule of standard written American English in a century or so, just as standard written English internalized the rule against "double negatives" a long time ago, though spoken non-standard dialects typically retain negative concord. The copy editor probably saw the which and assumed a dropped comma.

  2. Army1987 said,

    May 20, 2010 @ 2:16 pm

    I thought "what would be wrong with suggesting'?" immediately before reading your suggestion to use ‘suggesting’.

  3. Morgan said,

    May 20, 2010 @ 2:23 pm

    Where does the that/which rule come from? I never encountered it until Microsoft Word started underlining some instances of "which" in green. Or was it red? Hard to say, because I figured the experts hired by Microsoft to create the grammar checker knew a lot more than I did about grammar (hey, it was in grade school). I internalized the rule, and have been fully Word compliant for many years now.

    [It came out of some 19th-century faddish purism and was popularized above all by Henry Fowler. It never reflected actual usage by expert writers, and Fowler never even claimed that it did. He just thought English would be neater if the rule were: (1) restrictive if and only if introduced by that, (2) nonrestrictive if and only if introduced by which. The trouble is, that isn't right for Standard English, and it never was, and nobody could possibly follow it. There would have to be half a dozen exceptions; and even then you'd have a rule that neither British nor American speakers and writers follow. Language Log has written about this scores of times. For a brief digest on this, see this file of notes. —GKP]

  4. Joe said,

    May 20, 2010 @ 2:28 pm

    I blame the grammar checker on Word (I just checked, and it flags it).

  5. Barometry said,

    May 20, 2010 @ 2:32 pm

    Is the sentence really incorrect and/or ungrammatical as punctuated? Or is it simply misleading?

    I ask because it seems perfectly natural (to me) to insert an intonational break before that relative clause, the kind of intonational break generally associated with a comma in English. The result is ambiguous between a restrictive and an supplementary interpretation for the relative clause, and perhaps should therefore be avoided on stylistic grounds, but is it actually a mistake?

  6. CIngram said,

    May 20, 2010 @ 3:07 pm

    Fowler, in his article on relative clauses, adresses the matter of 'that' and 'which' far more intelligently and open-mindedly than he is usually given credit for, including here. He summarizes the state of play, dismisses the idea that 'which' is somehow more literary or formal, but also explains how that belief has come about, and merely suggests, as a useful way of avoiding the ambiguity or uncertainty discussed in this post, the use of 'that' in defing and of 'which' in non-defining relative clauses (everyone has their own term for these beasts, it seems). He recognises that it is not the practice of the best writers and is never likely to be.

    His remarks on the split infinitive are also intelligent (as, indeed, is most of the book) and unlikely to raise the blood pressure of even the most erudite LLer.

    [You are right that Fowler is much more nuanced than people realize; in fact in The King's English (1908) Fowler and his brother admit that the rule would be one so riddled with exception clauses that many would think it not worth having. They certainly do not pretend that writers had ever respected it. —GKP]

  7. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    May 20, 2010 @ 3:23 pm

    I agree with CIngram about Fowler. I think that what happened after that was that some presses incorporated the rule in their style guides (which, again, weren't meant to give the rules of the English Language, just to establish a conistent style for the press in question); but then these guides began to be treated (as I think they quite widely are in America) as if they gave the rules of the English language, so that the rule came to be seen as a grammatical one.

  8. John Lawler said,

    May 20, 2010 @ 3:26 pm

    It's a mistake if you don't think it's a good idea to be incorrect in writing. Writing that sentence that way is incorrect if it's supposed to have what is obviously (from other evidence) the intended meaning, and Geoff explained some of the many correct ways. I agree completely with his judgments of neatness and tightness of writing here; that's the way I'd want my writing students to analyze the sentence. In writing. That's where the correctness applies.

    In speech, I'd just add, the sentence would not be ambiguous, and the issue would not arise. As you correctly describe it, a "kind of intonational break" (e.g, is inherent in speech.

    And it so neatly distinguishes the two types of relative clauses that news of their difference comes as a surprise to most English speakers, who confuse English grammar with literacy.

  9. cameron said,

    May 20, 2010 @ 3:34 pm

    To clarify Joe's comment above: Word 2007 indicates that the comma-less version of the sentence with "which" is an error – and it suggests either the addition of the comma or the comma-less version with "that" as possible corrections.

  10. cameron said,

    May 20, 2010 @ 3:41 pm

    Specifically Word 2007 flags the error in question as "Which vs. That" – but this isn't one of the options you can turn on or off in customizing its grammar and style rules. The option you need to un-check to turn off this rule is called "Relative clauses – stylistic suggestions". I note that this option is categorized as one of the Style settings not among the Grammar settings.

  11. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    May 20, 2010 @ 3:43 pm

    I think the point is that not every intonational break is rightly represented by a comma. A comma has a specific grammatical singificance in writing; a break often has the same significance in speech; but not always.

  12. Morten Jonsson said,

    May 20, 2010 @ 3:48 pm

    I suspect that Professor Pullum's suggestion, though he finds it unlikely, is correct: a copy editor is at fault. (And I'd say that whether or not the writer put that comma there; it's the copy editor's job to get that stuff right.) Even good copy editors get lazy sometimes and edit by the rule rather than the sense–instead of asking whether the clause is restrictive or nonrestrictive, and punctuating accordingly, they take a mental shortcut and think "which–comma" or "that–no comma." This is what the that/which rule has done. It was intended to clarify the distinction between restrictive and nonrestrictive, and if it actually did that, there might be a good argument for observing it. But it's only made the situation more confused.

  13. Richard Hershberger said,

    May 20, 2010 @ 4:07 pm

    As a point of historical interest, the putative that/which distinction does not ultimately derive from Fowler, frequent claims to the contrary notwithstanding. The earliest advocate I know of for the rule was Goold Brown, who wrote an impressively massive and rather wacky English grammar in the mid-19th century. He was so impressed by the that/which rule that when he edited an edition of a grammar from about a half century earlier, he merrily went through and "corrected" it to fit the rule. The idea floated around after that, but the modern affection for the affectation runs through Fowler.

    Speaking of Fowler, CIngram is right that he wasn't so disconnected from reality as is often imagined, at least on this point. He thought the rule a good idea, but recognized that it wasn't actually a real rule of English. His followers in America took this and ran with it, with it mystically morphing from a wistful suggestion into a rule sometime around the mid-20th century. On the one hand, it is unfair to blame Fowler for the delusions of his followers. On the other hand, it is entirely likely that had Fowler not advocated it, however weakly, it would be a minor curiosity of 19th century prescriptive grammar, like Richard Grant White's bizarre condemnation of the passive progressive (e.g. "The house is being built.").

    It isn't hard to find entries where Fowler is clearly dead wrong, and even perniciously so. See his discussion of masterly/masterful. He is more knowledgeable and reasonable than most of his followers, but this is more a condemnation of his followers than a defense of Fowler.

  14. Szwagier said,

    May 20, 2010 @ 5:26 pm

    Damned if I'm going to be taught grammar by Microsoft Word, whichever version. Or should that be thatever version?

  15. MJ said,

    May 20, 2010 @ 5:36 pm

    Further to what Richard Hershberger said–as I pointed out in a post the other day, the that/which distinction dates to at least to Alexander Bain's 1866 _An English Grammar_. I also agree with CIngram's representation of Fowler's account. If you really want to see fanatical on the that/which distinction, check out the much earlier Alfred Ayres. He fully deserves the title of first and possibly looniest which hunter. I came across the following amusing letter from a former surgeon general serving as an ad for one of Ayres's books, which suggests something of the zeal that Ayres brought to his campaign:

    My Dear Mr. Ayres:
    I do not know that the opinion of a physician is worth much on a question of grammar. It is at the risk, therefore, of being superfluous (which is, as you know, a literary sin of the first magnitude) that I give you my view of the changes you are endeavoring to effect in the use of the relative pronouns.
    If writers could be brought to use _who_ and _which_ are co-ordinating relative pronouns, and _that_ as the restrictive relative pronoun, in the manner you have so clearly laid down in your admirable preface to "Cobbett's Grammar," there can be no doubt that the effect as regards clearness would be greater than it is now.
    I am faithfully trying to adopt your ideas. Of course, old tricks are difficult to get rid of, and new ones are difficult to learn; but I am succeeding as well as could be expected. Occasionally, I still have to scratch out a _who_ or a _which_ and insert a _that_, but the instances are becoming fewer every day, and ere long, I shall use my _thats_ as automatically as I formerly used my _whos_ and _whiches_. I resisted for a while the substitution of _that_ for _who_, but even this change is being surely effected–and with, I think, decided advantage to my literary style.

  16. RL said,

    May 20, 2010 @ 6:00 pm

    Is repeating the word item grammatical?
    Oddly enough, the New York Times health blog has an item on performance reviews, which item suggests that they're probably a bad idea.

    [Grammatical, but rather formal, even pompous. And rare (in speech, essentially nonexistent). —GKP]

  17. Sal said,

    May 20, 2010 @ 6:16 pm

    Is it possible that the sense could be "The mere fact that a blog concerned with matters of health would have an item on performance reviews, which are normally considered a business concern, suggests that performance reviews are ipso facto a bad idea."?

  18. Scriptor Ignotior said,

    May 20, 2010 @ 7:33 pm

    I agree with CIngram and others who defend Fowler on distinguishing these uses of which and that. It is facile and fashionable to dismiss such a proposal as mindlessly prescriptive. The provenance is less relevant than the utility, and there are alternatives to applying it as insensitively as its critics assume.

    Writers of Old English might have consistently used ð for a voiced and þ for an unvoiced consonant. They did not, and that's a pity. What harm would there have been? We have before us a proposal to distinguish kinds of relative clauses with elegance and efficiency, usually without collateral damage. I am among the many who do so; and I suggest it when it is my role to make suggestions, just as I suggest cautious use of dashes. I also suggest the past perfect instead of the simple past where this will help to clarify a sequence of events. So what if American usage is moving against careful distinctions with these tenses? We have some measure of control, and are not doomed to drift in conformity with an extreme of descriptivism that no one really advocates.

    By the way, the unrestrictive which need not always be preceded by a comma. And commas do not map pauses in speech or shifts in intonation as simply as some seem to assume. What's more, ill-managed prosody in public discourse is getting to be as common as poor punctuation, and it cries out for sustained scrutiny and study.

  19. Gordon Campbell said,

    May 20, 2010 @ 7:56 pm

    I'm with Sal. The fact that a health blog discusses performance reviews is an indication that the reviews can have a detrimental effect on health. The nonrestrictive (nondefining, nonintegrative, supplementary or whateveryouwannacallit) clause makes sense.

  20. MJ said,

    May 20, 2010 @ 8:29 pm

    Yes, I think Sal and Gordon have a point. In fact I think the nonrestrictive reading might be the right one because the blog item doesn't itself suggest that performance reviews are probably a bad idea; rather it is reporting that numerous experts argue that performance reviews are a bad idea.

  21. DaveK said,

    May 20, 2010 @ 8:59 pm

    To my mind, the that=restrictive/which=non-restrictive distinction isn't a hard-and-fast rule, but it does seem to be more common to use that in indisputably restrictive clauses like this

    The worst mistake that I'm guilty of is trusting prescriptivists

    cf The worst mistake which I'm guilty of is trusting prescriptivists

    Does anyone else hear the second example as being a little off?
    (Or, add commas to each and you have the same problem.)

  22. Simon Cauchi said,

    May 20, 2010 @ 9:55 pm

    @Richard Hershberger

    Richard Grant White's condemnation of the passive progressive (e.g. "The house is being built") was not at all bizarre in its time. He was of an age to remember the older construction, which I imagine was not yet archaic in the mid-19th century: "The house is a-building".

  23. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 20, 2010 @ 10:05 pm

    I'd never read the which in that sentence as non-restrictive, and looking at the article confirms GKP's view. McArdle doesn't talk about the mere presence of the item on the blog; she goes into the details of its suggestions.

    @GKP: Okay, I'll bite. How do you tell a true rule of grammar, one that's violated at times, from a fictive one? By how often it's violated? I'll be happy to be referred to a discussion of this matter somewhere.

    When the split infinitive was rare (16th to early 18th centuries, I think), was there a real rule against it?

    I'll also say a word for the deprecation of summative relatives, and their cousins the summative demonstrative pronouns (This is the important point), if I may guess at the terminology. I don't think they're ungrammatical, but they can cause trouble, especially when the material is difficult and the reader may be struggling to understand it.

  24. fs said,

    May 20, 2010 @ 10:30 pm


    Is repeating the word item grammatical?
    Oddly enough, the New York Times health blog has an item on performance reviews, which item suggests that they're probably a bad idea.

    I believe so, yes. I think it may be slightly archaic, though – I hear/see it very rarely, though I produce it pretty regularly in my own writing.

  25. Stephen Jones said,

    May 21, 2010 @ 12:42 am

    The result is ambiguous between a restrictive and an supplementary interpretation for the relative clause

    It's not remotely ambiguous.

  26. Adam said,

    May 21, 2010 @ 3:47 am

    And finally, a fourth point: you can't base good prescription on bad description.

    Whoa, is GP admitting there's such a thing as good prescription?


    [Yes. Don't duck; I won't hit you. It is good to help people with their writing; every good English teacher or writing tutor or college instructor does it. The point is to stick to rules that really are rules of good writing. "Don't put a comma between subject and predicate", for example, is good advice (though only to someone who knows what the subject and the predicate are in a clause, of course). The point has NEVER been that no one should tell anyone how to write or that there are no rules to follow. What Language Log seeks to convince you of is that clueless pontificators are handing out advice based on rules that do not square with good written Standard English and never did at any point in history. Got it? Get up from under that desk. —GKP]

  27. Dougal Stanton said,

    May 21, 2010 @ 4:57 am

    Oddly enough, the New York Times health blog has an item on performance reviews, which suggests that they're probably a bad idea.

    Instead of performance reviews being a bad idea, I initially read this as "items on performance reviews are a bad idea". With the idea being that (1) anything the NYT health blog covers is old news and (2) performance reviews are being covered by the health blog so (3) don't write articles about performance reviews unless you want to be even more behind the times (sic) than they are.

  28. pj said,

    May 21, 2010 @ 6:07 am


    The worst mistake that I'm guilty of is trusting prescriptivists

    cf The worst mistake which I'm guilty of is trusting prescriptivists

    Does anyone else hear the second example as being a little off?

    They both sound a little off to me, and I'd almost certainly produce neither. 'The worst mistake I'm guilty of is trusting prescriptivists'.

    Yes, 'that' would perhaps be the lesser of two evils, but there are other factors in play than its simply being an 'indisputably restrictive clause', not least the fact that we're using the slightly unwieldy 'be guilty of'. Changing the verb, 'The worst thing which I ever did was to trust a prescriptivist' and 'The worst thing that I ever did was to trust a prescriptivist' are much of a muchness to me (though in speaking I'd still probably produce 'The worst thing I ever did was…'). It really is just an aesthetic rather than a grammatical judgement, and there's no reason why all examples of the same 'indisputably restrictive' type should consistently sound better with one treatment or sound 'off' with another.

    There's a fourth possibility with your example, as well as '- I'm guilty of', 'that I'm guilty of' and 'which I'm guilty of': 'of which I'm guilty'. If our alien overlords forced me to use 'which', I'd probably yank the 'of' forward for preference.

    (Or, add commas to each and you have the same problem.)

    Surely add commas and you have a different problem with one, and no problem at all but a different meaning for the other?

    'The worst mistake, which I'm guilty of, is trusting prescriptivists' – fine, but turns it into the worst mistake anyone could make (and I happen to have made it myself), not just the worst I have made.

    *'The worst mistake, that I'm guilty of, is trusting prescriptivists' – eurgh.

  29. Otter said,

    May 21, 2010 @ 9:02 am

    McArdle's track record of addle-brained libertarian writing on health care may have added to the confusion. The woman who once wrote, "I don’t understand the ban on paying for organs," is perfectly capable of suggesting that the mere appearance of opinions in the Times "suggests that they're probably a bad idea."

    For more:

  30. MJ said,

    May 21, 2010 @ 9:30 am


    But as far as I can tell from a quick read, the blog item itself doesn't make the suggestion that performance reviews might be a bad idea; rather it seems to be merely reporting that X, Y, and Z suggest as much. If the adverb had been placed after "which," I think that would rule out a restrictive reading: "Oddly enough, the New York Times health blog has an item on performance reviews, which probably suggests they're a bad idea."

  31. jamessal said,

    May 21, 2010 @ 10:17 am

    Is anyone else aware of a prescriptivist exception to the that/which rule, applicable to sentences like McArdle's in which another potential antecedent stands between the pronoun and its intended antecedent? The reasoning behind this supposed rule, which would allow for a restrictive which in McArdle's sentence (and which I don't think I just invented), is that that wants to be read as applying to the nearest possible antecedent ("reviews" in this case rather than "item"), whereas which is more flexible. I don't know if the inflection of suggest would alter the applicability of the exception, if it exists at all (I couldn't find any mention of it just now in Garner).

  32. Army1987 said,

    May 21, 2010 @ 10:31 am

    The English grammar textbook I used in high school (written in Italian by someone with an Italian name!) says that "that" is preferred to "which"/"who(m)" with superlatives, ordinal numers, "last", "next", "only" and with "all", "everything", "something" etc., and indeed it would sound weird to me to use "which" in such circumstances.

  33. Philip said,

    May 21, 2010 @ 10:32 am

    1. The students, who were rioting, got arrested.

    2. The students who were rioting got arrested.

    The first sentence, if I'm understanding this correctly, contains a supplementary relative clause. The second sentence contains an integrated relative clause.

    So the first sentence says that all the students were rioting, and they all got arrested. The second sentence says that only some of the students–the rioting ones–got arrested.

    Am I right so far?

    Since there's such a big difference in meaning between these two examples, it seems weird that this information gets lost if the relative clause is reduced to a participle: The rioting students got arrested.

  34. Terry Collmann said,

    May 21, 2010 @ 10:36 am

    I don't like the double occurrence of that very much, but it's entirely grammatical, and many copy editors would insist that this is the version to pick.

    Why not eliminate the second that?

    "Oddly enough, the New York Times health blog has an item on performance reviews that suggests they're probably a bad idea."

    Seems grammatical and unambiguous to me.

  35. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 21, 2010 @ 1:20 pm

    @MJ: I think "an item on performance reviews[,] which suggests that they're probably a bad idea" refers to the suggestions quoted at the blog post that they're a bad idea, even though they're just quoted. Four people saying they're a bad idea and one saying a performance review can work but “In the typical case, it’s done so badly it’s better not to do it at all.” suggest to me that they're a bad idea.

    I especially think so because McArdle goes on to talk about the specifics.

    I agree that moving "probably" in the sentence would strongly imply the restrictive interpretation, but it wouldn't make much sense in the situation.

  36. Richard Hershberger said,

    May 21, 2010 @ 2:01 pm

    @ MJ:

    Ayres! He was the one who went back and "corrected" Cobbett. My mistake.

    Goold Brown did, however, suggest the that/which distinction well before Bain. From his Grammar of English Grammars (the fourth, 1858 edition: the first edition is from 1851), p. 305:

    "Obs. 26. –Relative pronouns are capable of being taken in two very different senses: the one, restrictive of the general idea suggested by the antecedent ; tho other, resumptive of that idea, in the full import of the term—or, in whatever extent the previous definitives allow. The distinction between these two senses, important as it is, is frequently made to depend solely upon the insertion or the omission of a comma. Thus, if I say, "Men who grasp after riches, are never satisfied" the relative who is taken restrictively, and I am understood to speak only of the avaricious. But, if I say, "Men, who grasp after riches, arc never satisfied;" by separating the terms men and who, I declare all men to be covetous and unsatisfied. For the former sense, the relative that is preferable to who and I shall presently show why…."

    and p. 306:

    "Obs. 30. — The relative that, though usually reckoned equivalent to who or which, evidently differs from both, in being more generally, and perhaps more appropriately, taken in the restrictive sense. It ought therefore, for distinction's sake, to be preferred to who or which, whenever an antecedent not otherwise limited, is to be restricted by the relative clause…"

    It goes on at some length. (The book is over a thousand pages.) It is available through Google books, if you have the stomach for it.

  37. Theo Vosse said,

    May 21, 2010 @ 2:16 pm

    Isn't a question of attachment preferences? There are three possible attachment sites in this phrase. E.g., in the construction "NP1 NP2 relative-clause", there is a tendency to attach the relative clause to the higher NP, although not universally (first articles on this probably from Clifton & Frazier). Although there are more constituents here, perhaps "which suggests" relates to the "the New York Times health blog has an item" rather than "an item", due to some lexical preferences (which would make a rule on the use of commas to disambiguate the reading rather complex).

  38. MJ said,

    May 21, 2010 @ 2:22 pm


    Ah, it makes sense that it was Ayres you were referring to, because he was without a doubt a man on a crusade. And thanks re Brown–I've "paged" through the Grammar of English Grammars a number of times (via Google books) and do recall looking specifically at this section on relative pronouns, but there are so many editions of the book (plus the Institutes of Grammar) that I wasn't sure which edition it was that he first made the point in.

  39. Richard Hershberger said,

    May 21, 2010 @ 2:30 pm

    @ MJ:

    If you enjoy the genre, and don't already know him, but sure to look up Richard Grant White. He was a writer for Galaxy Magazine, which was similar to The Atlantic and Harpers (and not to be confused with the 20th century science fiction magazine). He put out two books on language, and was quite the crusader himself. I'm not sure, but he might have been the first to denigrate words by claiming that they are not in fact words.

  40. MJ said,

    May 21, 2010 @ 3:33 pm


    Possibly "suggests" is ambiguous. If the verb were "argues" or "claims," I would consider the sentence to be straightforwardly misleading, since it doesn't seem like the blog item makes an argument or a claim. So perhaps a restrictive reading makes sense if you don't hear "suggests" as "argues" or "claims."

    Still, I see no reason to rule out the nonrestrictive reading. One further consideration is is the likelihood of Megan McArdle using a restrictive “which.” A quick search of a few of her blog entries as well as look through a transcript of a question-and-answer session she participated in yields no instances of a restrictive “which” (the transcript has about fifteen restrictive “that”s (“Megan McArdle on the final health-care vote and why she opposes reform,” _Washington Post_, Mar. 21, 2010).

  41. MJ said,

    May 21, 2010 @ 4:20 pm


    Thanks for that reference. Grant is channeling Robert Hartwell Fiske!

  42. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    May 21, 2010 @ 7:23 pm

    There seem to be two issues here; whether the 'which' is restrictive or not, and the antecedent of 'which'. Interestingly, if you substitute 'argues' or 'claims' for 'suggests', then the 'which' unambiguously refers back to the item, even with the comma; with 'suggests' it's ambiguous because the fact that the NYT has an item can suggest something, while it can't argue or claim something.

    It seems to me that 'an item, which claims…' (non-restrictive) would in fact make sense. It would mean 'The blog has an item on performance reviews' [that's the important point], 'which, by the way, claims…' After 'the', the difference between restrictive and non-restrictive relatives is a clear and important one: 'the item which claims' or 'the item that claims' identifies the item, while, 'the item, which claims' assumes that we already know which item is meant and gives us a further fact about it. But after 'a' the difference is often more a matter of nuance. 'There is an item which claims' (or 'that claims') and 'there is an item, which claims' convey more or less the same information, but emphasise different parts of it.

  43. Private Zydeco said,

    May 22, 2010 @ 4:04 pm

    J.F.E.I. (just for everyone's information) "Pause and Clause" is the title
    of a "post-rock" album by a band from the Midwest States which was named Sharks Keep Moving. Pun very much intended, one thinks…..

  44. Morgan said,

    May 28, 2010 @ 10:31 am

    Thanks for the pointer to the compiled "that/which" entries.

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