Which-hunting in uncomprehending darkness

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Noreen Malone ("Grading Obama’s ‘Classic Undergraduate-ese'", New York Magazine 5/2/2012) turned to Matthew Hart to grade a letter that Barack Obama wrote to a girlfriend when he was an undergraduate at Columbia University. Prof. Hart, who "specializes in twentieth and twenty-first century Anglophone culture, with an emphasis on modernist poetry, contemporary British fiction, political theory, and the visual arts", was not impressed:

Considered as homework, I'd give the future President a B-minus. The reference to "an ecstatic vision which runs from Münzer to Yeats" (besides confusing that and which) sounds impressive, but it's more than a little opaque.

The dangling adjunct in Prof. Hart's first sentence is a lovely example of Muphry's Law in action. And a dispassionate observer might challenge Hart's standing to complain about opacity, given that he himself routinely writes things like "The critical novelty of  Invisible Poet […]  lies, in part, in the way it lights with a Bradleyan torch the darkness that did not comprehend" ("Visible Poet: T. S. Eliot and Modernist Studies", American Literary History 19(1), 2007).

But the most linguistically interesting aspect of Prof. Hart's evaluation is the parenthetical remark about "confusing that and which". Regular readers will be weary of our many complaints about which-hunting (see this and this for a couple of classic examples), so I won't discuss yet again the invented "rule" forbidding which in "integrated" or "restrictive" relative clauses. But I thought it might be instructive to take a look at this feature of the prose of T.S. Eliot, to whom Prof. Hart would presumably give a better grade than B-. Here are a few examples (among 50 or so) from Eliot's essay  "Tradition and the Individual Talent" (1921):

The necessity that he shall conform, that he shall cohere, is not one-sided; what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it.

He must be aware that the mind of Europe—the mind of his own country—a mind which he learns in time to be much more important than his own private mind—is a mind which changes, and that this change is a development which abandons nothing en route, which does not superannuate either Shakespeare, or Homer, or the rock drawing of the Magdalenian draughtsmen.

But the difference between the present and the past is that the conscious present is an awareness of the past in a way and to an extent which the past’s awareness of itself cannot show.

Or we could take a look at W.B. Yeats' A Vision (1925), where "confusions" between which and that are similarly epidemic:

The Will looks into a painted picture. The Creative Mind looks into a photograph, but both look into something which is the opposite of themselves.

The relations between Will and Mask, Creative Mind and Body of Fate are colled oppositions, and upon some occasions contrasts, while those between Will and Creative Mind, Mask and Body of Fate are called — for reasons which will appear later — discords.

The False Mask of Phase 3 is 'Folly' and is derived from Phase 17 modified by Creative Mind of that phase which is described as 'Creative imagination through antithetical emotion'.

It's surprising to learn that someone whose business is poetic language is so insensitive to the language of the poets that he studies.


  1. Ryan Denzer-King said,

    May 4, 2012 @ 9:17 am

    I've noticed that which-hunters have often transformed FDR's famous quote into "a date that will live in infamy". Though the original version still gets more ghits for now.

  2. Carl said,

    May 4, 2012 @ 9:45 am

    Heh, I just spent at least half an hour de-which-ing a document tonight, just so I don't have to worry about complaints from my profs. Oh well, what can you do?

  3. Jeff Carney said,

    May 4, 2012 @ 9:56 am

    Raise your hand if your undergraduate career was never tainted by pretentiousness. Anyone? Anyone?

  4. Jan Schreuder said,

    May 4, 2012 @ 10:26 am

    You did send Prof. Hart a link to this page, didnt you? If only to light with a torch the Columbian darkness the professor seems to be stumbling in.

  5. Paul said,

    May 4, 2012 @ 10:41 am

    Professor Hart appears to be from Britain, where the "rule" isn't even in force.

  6. Pete Schult said,

    May 4, 2012 @ 10:51 am

    It's surprising to learn that someone whose business is poetic language is so insensitive to the language of the poets that he studies.

    Unfortunately, the sentence quoted above is false.

  7. D.O. said,

    May 4, 2012 @ 11:13 am

    Is it usual to give as a homework assignment to write a letter to one's (pretended?) girlfriend/boyfriend?

  8. Nathan said,

    May 4, 2012 @ 11:17 am

    I never heard of the that/which "rule" until years after graduating from college. And I had some pretty fussy high school English teachers (who would have marked me down for starting a sentence with "And").

  9. chris y said,

    May 4, 2012 @ 11:34 am

    Nathan, agreed. Who invented this nonsense, when and where? I suggest it may actually postdate President Obama's student days – he is middle aged, after all.

  10. Jeff Carney said,

    May 4, 2012 @ 11:50 am

    @Chris y:

    As far as I know, Fowler is the biggest champion. I learned a lot from the 2nd edition when I was an undergrad studying English, and I've spent a lot of the last 30 years un-learning much of it.

  11. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    May 4, 2012 @ 12:00 pm

    However, Fowler did not say it actually was a rule of English; he merely proposed that it would be a useful rule to have. What seems to have happened since then is:
    a. Some publishers adopted it into their style guides as part of their house style.
    b. Some people began to read those style guides as if they contained the rules of English – which is not the intention with which they were written.

  12. Jeff Carney said,

    May 4, 2012 @ 12:05 pm

    That's the way with a lot of the "rules." Not ending a sentence with a preposition is another classic of stylistic advice morphing into a commandment.

  13. Sili said,

    May 4, 2012 @ 12:28 pm

    I think it would be even more enlightening to go through Hart's own writings to see how often he breaks his own 'rules'.

    Of course, he's allowed to because he knows the rules.

    [(myl) Actually, he's pretty punctilious about this. I read a couple of his papers, and the only restrictive uses of which that I found were in quotations from other writers.]

  14. Mr Fnortner said,

    May 4, 2012 @ 12:36 pm

    We can toss aside many shibboleths regarding infinitives, prepositions, conjunctions and so forth as just so many irrelevant rules. In fact, I am happy to do so. However, I believe the case of which is also one of meaning. How do I distinguish a restrictive sense from a parenthetical sense–not as I speak or write but as I interpret written or spoken which, if which has two opposite meanings?

    [(myl) In most cases, non-restrictive relative clauses are set off by a comma. But even if this were not true, your question is a bit like asking "how do I distinguish the directional preposition to from the infinitive marker to, if "to" has two quite different meanings? Or "how do I distinguish the bank of a river from the bank that has my checking and savings accounts?"]

  15. Martin J Ball said,

    May 4, 2012 @ 12:41 pm

    @ Mr Fortner: punctuation / prosody

  16. Nathan said,

    May 4, 2012 @ 12:46 pm

    Mr. Fnortner, it seems we're doing just fine so far. Can you find an "ambiguous which" with the dire consequences you allude to?

  17. Eric W said,

    May 4, 2012 @ 12:50 pm

    Two more reasons not to run for president: 1. having one's letters to former girlfriends graded as homework by an Ivy League professor; 2. losing votes over that vs. which.

  18. Eric P Smith said,

    May 4, 2012 @ 1:14 pm

    @Jeff Carney: I think you are being a little unfair on H W Fowler. He never said there is a rule forbidding which in "integrated" or "restrictive" relative clauses (or "defining" as he calls them). All he says (Fowler's Modern English Usage, I have the Second Edition) is:

    If writers would agree to regard that as the defining 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.

    In other words, it would be nice if there were such a rule, but there isn’t.

    Fowler is much maligned, but I am a fan: he was far more descriptivist than most of his contemporaries.

  19. Jonathon said,

    May 4, 2012 @ 1:20 pm

    The that/which rule didn't become widespread until the middle of the twentieth century. Editors and teachers have apparently done a good job at enforcing it in published writing, but I'm not convinced that anything has been gained by it.

    For one thing, it's redundant. Commas do the primary work of signaling the distinction between restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses. Second, the rule is riddled with exceptions. It doesn't apply when the relative pronoun is the object of a preposition, is possessive, or follows demonstrative that. Third, if it's such an important distinction, why don't we have a similar rule for the animate relative pronoun who? (Please don't take that as encouragement for concocting yet another rule for relative pronouns.)

  20. Brian C. said,

    May 4, 2012 @ 1:25 pm

    I have a theory: the obsolescence of the nonrestrictive "that" is in large part responsible for people's misconception that the determiners of restrictiveness vs. nonrestrictiveness are the pronouns themselves, when in fact the presence or absence of a comma setting off the clause is dispositive. Perhaps…

  21. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 4, 2012 @ 1:28 pm

    Since we had Alfred Ayres yesterday, he quotes "Bain's 'Higher English Grammar'" at length and apparently approvingly. Bain's proposal was to reserve that for "restriction" and which and who/whom for "coördination". He goes so far as to recommend avoiding which and whom after prepositions by stranding the preposition at the end. I don't know the history of this idea between Bain and Fowler's milder version.

  22. Brian C. said,

    May 4, 2012 @ 1:30 pm

    The rule would be an awful thing even if it were actually a rule. Take a look at the T.S. Eliot snippet: 'which' hunting there would more than double the occurrence of 'that', which would triple the passage's clumsiness.

  23. hector said,

    May 4, 2012 @ 1:32 pm

    @ Carl, Jeff Carney:

    I once had a professor cross out "bring forth" and replace it with "elicit." Temporarily doubting my sanity, I grabbed my dictionary, looked up "elicit," and sure enough, the first meaning was "bring forth." I'm still pissed off about this, decades later.

  24. Q. Pheevr said,

    May 4, 2012 @ 2:07 pm

    Noreen Malone turned to Matthew Hart to grade a letter that Barack Obama wrote to a girlfriend when he was an undergraduate at Columbia University.

    No, I mean, seriously, why? Is this part of some plot to discourage anyone in their right mind from seeking higher office?
    It seems to me that public scrutiny of one's personal undergraduate correspondence is the sort of thing that, by any reasonable standards of propriety, ought to be postponed until many years after one has died. Of course, there probably aren't very many readers nowadays who would be interested in the love song of Warren G. Harding, but then that's sort of the point.

  25. Steve Reilly said,

    May 4, 2012 @ 2:15 pm

    Huh. Must be a trend. Arts and Letters Daily today linked to a review of Mark Levin's new book in which Carlin Romano chides Levin for "dis­play[ing] many marks of the bad­ly edu­cat­ed writ­er, such as mis­use of the word "com­prise," re­pet­i­tive quotes, and un­fa­mil­iar­i­ty with the "that/which" dis­tinc­tion."

  26. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 4, 2012 @ 3:31 pm

    Assuming the proto-Yeatsian ecstatic referred to is the apocalyptic Reformation preacher-cum-revolutionary Thomas Muentzer (spellings and transliterations of the surname vary a bit . . .), which is the only plausible theory I have thus far seen advanced, we could also look to him, but he has the disadvantage of having written in German (and I assume in a variety/register that now sounds a bit archaic in anny event) and the first thing I found on the web of his in English translation seems to have been Englished by some sort of academic dweeb inclined to follow mythical rules (i.e., the only instances of "which" unfortunately comply with the supposed rule).

  27. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 4, 2012 @ 3:42 pm

    You'd also think a literary scholar would be alert to matters of genre. The musings-about-Eliot letter as excerpted in the VF article also contains, for example, a sentence fragment. I would think that ought to be held against it if it were an essay submitted for course credit (i.e., I would not think a professor who drew a red circle around with a marginal note that it was a fragment was being a prescriptivist buffoon), but not held against if it's a letter aimed at impressing a girl, which is a somewhat different genre of prose composition. (The letter also contains the phrase "to catch a sense of what I speak" where I would have used a verb like "mean" instead of "speak" and find "speak" jarring to the point of being ungrammatical in my idiolect — I don't think "speak" can be used transitively with the sort of direct object that's implied in the particular context. But I'm totally open to the possibility that his idiolect differed as to the semantic range of "speak" and even more open to the possibility that it's a mistake he would have caught had he proofread the letter the way he might have proofread an essay being submitted for course credit.)

  28. karpasking said,

    May 4, 2012 @ 4:15 pm

    I remember the infuriating comment, made by a similarly language-deaf English teacher, that Shakespeare/Melville/Yeats could break rules because they were great writers. All the rest of us had to reserve "which" for special occasions.

  29. Alan Gunn said,

    May 4, 2012 @ 4:40 pm

    "How do I distinguish a restrictive sense from a parenthetical sense–not as I speak or write but as I interpret written or spoken which, if which has two opposite meanings?"

    The way you distinguish a restrictive "who" from a parenthetical "who."

  30. Mr Fnortner said,

    May 4, 2012 @ 5:37 pm

    With respect, myl, bank and bank are like which and witch–seldom if ever confused in conversation. Also Martin J Ball, commas are awfully hard to hear. And Nathan, it's hard to divine any dire consequences in my question as I suggested no consequences at all. I do appreciate Alan Gunn's response which pretty much lays to rest my inquiry. All that said, I wanted to make the point above that this is not a question of the rightness or wrongness of some arbitrary, inconsequential rule (a superstition). To some people, which has alternative meanings that they attempt to respect, while to many others no such concern exists.

  31. Jonathan Mayhew said,

    May 4, 2012 @ 6:20 pm

    I don't find commas hard to hear in the least, though what I'm hearing is not a something but a break between two somethings.

  32. Martin J Ball said,

    May 4, 2012 @ 7:08 pm

    @ Fortner: that's why I also wrote PROSODY …. :(

  33. Levni said,

    May 4, 2012 @ 10:31 pm

    "I do appreciate Alan Gunn's response which pretty much lays to rest my inquiry."

    It seems Mr Fnortner thinks that "which" can function independently without a comma to set off a nonrestrictive clause.

  34. Rubrick said,

    May 4, 2012 @ 11:53 pm

    This sort of foolishness is indeed draining, but I figure which that does not kill me only makes me stronger.

  35. Jessie said,

    May 5, 2012 @ 12:24 am

    Restricting "which" to "nonrestrictive" clauses may not be a rule, but I believe writers should (in the absence of some other purpose) generally try to make their passages as easy to read as possible.

    One way to make a passage readable is to avoid phrases that cause "double takes," that is, second readings of bits of sentences. Phrases that include ambiguous wordings often cause these double takes and make the task of comprehending much more taxing. (If I replaced the "that" with a "which" in the last sentence–but left out the commas–a reader could come to an alternate meaning: All phrases cause double takes, including "ambiguous wordings," which are part of the set of "phrases.") That is why I use "which" exclusively with commas: to make my writing easier to understand.

    As a lawyer, I find that my colleagues overload on "which"es for the same reason people say things like, "If you have questions, ask Susie or myself" and "She invited John and I to go to the movies." Though unquestionably wrong, these hypercorrections just sound smarter (to some people). Using "which" in a restrictive clause may not be wrong, but doing it–or anything else–to impress or to obfuscate *is* wrong.

  36. Levni said,

    May 5, 2012 @ 2:58 am

    Jessie, I don't think people use restrictive "which" to sound more impressive or vague; they do so because it is clear and idiomatic, and has been so for centuries. To argue that maintaining a that/which distinction is helpful in the case of a writer who omits commas is bizarre: why should an unnecessary and hyper-grammatical rule compensate for someone's sloppy punctuation?

  37. LDavidH said,

    May 5, 2012 @ 4:26 am

    And what about languages that/which don't even distinguish between "which" and "who" (like Swedish "som", or Albanian "që"), never mind between "that"/"which"? They must be hopelessly incomprehensible…

  38. boynamedsue said,

    May 5, 2012 @ 4:31 am

    The unfortunate thing is that this 'rule' is spreading thanks to the nefarious activities of a certain Mr William Gates.

    Few people bother to read style guides or grammar books, but many people will automatically click on the correct button when the 4-gig imbecile living on their desktop underlines something in green. I've even been tempted to do so myself, if only because I'm not sure whether the person I'm sending a Word-doc to will know that it's Word that's wrong, not me.

  39. Army1987 said,

    May 5, 2012 @ 7:01 am

    @Brian C.: Indeed. How comes people bothered by which as a marker of restrictive clauses because it can also a marker of non-restrictive clauses aren't bothered by that even though it can also be a marker of lots of other kinds of clauses (as well as a determinative etc.)?

  40. Dan Lufkin said,

    May 5, 2012 @ 10:41 am

    @ LDavidH — Swedish holds in reserve the useful word vilken/vilket/vilka comma which can be deployed to indicate gender and number when just plain som is ambiguous. It sounds a little prissy if you use it in conversation, but it's always there if you need it.

  41. Rodger C said,

    May 5, 2012 @ 10:55 am

    There are perfectly good prosodic reasons for using "which" restrictively when it damn well sounds better. I'm especuially ticked off by a rule that didn't exist at all when I was learning writing in school ca. 1960. My collection of old style guides confirms that the rule has spread only since then.

  42. pjharvey said,

    May 5, 2012 @ 2:55 pm

    I actually prefer the dangling adjunct here, suggesting that someone made a young Barack Obama as a homework assignment. And got a B-minus for his efforts!

    Good job, maker of the future president.

  43. LDavidH said,

    May 6, 2012 @ 8:04 am

    @Dan Lufkin: Well, technically you might be right – but I would never use "vilken" etc as a relative pronoun in spoken language, and hardly ever in writing. And the issue here isn't about marking gender or number (which the English which/that/who don't do anyway), but the distinction between restrictive and non-restrictive (?) clauses, which Swedish doesn't ever make.

  44. Dan Lufkin said,

    May 6, 2012 @ 3:58 pm

    Yeah, but vilken/vilket/vilka lets you elegantly disambiguate things like "I dropped a marble, a coin, and some thumbtacks that/which rolled into the corner. Let's see you do that in English.

  45. LDavidH said,

    May 7, 2012 @ 4:08 am

    @Dn Lufkin: I wouldn't say "elegantly"; I would still say "som" and then clarify what I meant (if necessary). In very, very academic writing I might use "vilken" / "vilka" to disambiguate, but I doubt it. It sounds incredibly stilted and old-fashioned to me (but maybe that's because I'm an ex-pat?).

  46. LDavidH said,

    May 7, 2012 @ 4:09 am

    Oh, and in English you could say "… the latter of which rolled…" or "…the first of which rolled.." etc to disambiguate, if you feel the need.

  47. Dan Lufkin said,

    May 7, 2012 @ 9:04 am

    The good thing is that both English and Swedish allow you to say just about anything that comes to mind.

  48. LDavidH said,

    May 8, 2012 @ 2:53 am

    Det har du ju rätt i!

  49. Dan Lufkin said,

    May 8, 2012 @ 1:32 pm

    Det låter bättre på ärans och hjältarnas språk, förstås.

  50. Jessie said,

    May 14, 2012 @ 1:18 pm

    Hi again. I'm still pondering the use of "which" in legalese. I was reading a statute today. Can someone tell me if they would find this usage to be correct or incorrect?

    It shall be the duty of recorders to record:
    All deeds, mortgages, conveyances, deeds of trust, assignments, bonds, covenants, defeasances, or other instruments of writing, of or concerning any lands and tenements, or goods and chattels, which shall be proved or acknowledged, and authorized to be recorded in their offices . . .

    (This is a restrictive-clause usage: The meaning is that recorders have to record deeds, etc., that meet the requirement of being "proved or acknowledged," not that, once recorded, the deed becomes "proved or acknowledged.")

    Here's another one (with commas): “A deed of trust, which is acknowledged before the trustee named therein, is valid between the parties and those having actual notice of it, though it is insufficient to authorize its being recorded.”

    (Again, this is a restrictive-clause usage. It means, "A deed of trust that is acknowledged before the trustee named therein is valid between the parties . . . ")

  51. Jessie said,

    May 14, 2012 @ 1:49 pm

    Here's another one that is confusing to me.

    "Financial institutions, which are mortgage servicers, shall pay property tax obligations which they service from escrow accounts . . . ."

    The statute's meaning is "Financial institutions that are also mortgage servicers . . ." Even for those of us who believe "which" can be used interchangeably with "that" in restrictive clauses, the addition of the commas makes this incorrect (I think). Do you agree?

  52. Jeff Carney said,

    May 15, 2012 @ 11:06 am

    @Eric P Smith

    Just to clarify this several weeks late. A careful look at my remarks on Fowler should show that I was not hard on him at all. I first called him a "champion" of the that-which distinction, which I think is true and non-judgmental. In a later comment I agreed that advice often morphs into a rule. In this case, I meant that Fowler was the source of the advice, and that the "rule" developed afterward.

  53. Jeff Carney said,

    May 15, 2012 @ 11:16 am

    What I probably should have been chastised for was saying I'd spent a lot of time un-learning Fowler. I can't think of a single thing I learned in Fowler that I have since rejected. Doesn't mean it didn't happen. But I doubt any of it was conscious or related to Fowler per se. And I did quite enjoy reading about all the "rules" that Fowler debunks.

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