Reddit blewit

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Reddit, for those few who might not know, is a popular bulletin-board site for posting and discussing links and texts. A voting system determines the order and position of entries. The site is divided into "subreddits" devoted to paticular topics, of which there are now tens of thousands.

One of these countless subreddits is /r/grammar. Here "grammar", as usual, is mostly taken to mean "spelling, punctuation, and word usage" — but the items posted are generally questions rather than peeves, and the questions are sincere and sometimes interesting. Like other subreddits, /r/grammar has moderators, and they've chosen a few select links for the right-hand top of the page:

The five selected topics seem a bit random, but at least the first four of them (a vs. an, sentence-ending prepositions, I vs. meCompound possession) link to plausible discussions of the cited issues. The fifth one, however, points to a grammatical disaster: a page on "That Versus Which" from Marc A. Grinker's "The Legal Writing Teaching Assistant: The Law Student's Guide to Good Writing" (1994).

Its opening:

The traditional approach to this question is to use "that" with restrictive clauses and "which" with nonrestrictive clauses. While some writers seem to have abandoned the distinction entirely, no better rule has come along to replace the traditional rule.

Every assertion and implication in these two sentences is false. It's depressing that a widely-read site like Reddit links prominently to such nonsense.

For the past couple of centuries, the true "traditional approach to this question" has been to use which (following a comma) with nonrestrictive relative clauses, and either that or which with restrictive relative clauses. The restrictive-that-nonrestrictive-which idea is a usage-maven's innovation, first suggested in the early 20th century as a possible means to increase "lucidity & ease", and then elevated to the status of a "rule" by various self-appointed (and mostly American) authorities.

The phony restrictive-that-nonrestrictive-which "rule" has never been followed by elite writers on either side of the Atlantic. Fowler 1926 conceded as much when he advanced his unfortunate suggestion:

… if writers would agree to regard that as the defining relative pronoun, & which as the non-defining, there would be much gain both in lucidity & 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.

William Strunk's original 1918 Elements of Style did not include any mention of the phony restrictive-that-nonrestrictive-which "rule", and in fact used restrictive which freely and frequently, e.g.

This book […] gives in Chapter III only those principles of the paragraph and the sentence which are of the widest application.

… non-restrictive relative clauses, that is, those which do not serve to identify or define the antecedent noun, and similar clauses introduced by conjunctions indicating time or place.

The sentence is virtually a combination of two statements which might have been made independently.

A common fault is to use as the subject of a passive construction a noun which expresses the entire action, leaving to the verb no function beyond that of completing the sentence.

The effectiveness of the periodic sentence arises from the prominence which it gives to the main statement.

The writer must therefore, so far as possible, bring together the words, and groups of words, that are related in thought, and keep apart those which are not so related.

There is precedent from the fourteenth century downward for interposing an adverb between to and the infinitive which it governs, but the construction is in disfavor and is avoided by nearly all careful writers.

At some point in the publishing history of E.B. White's revision and republication of this work, starting in 1959, he introduced the famous which-hunting incitement:

Careful writers, watchful for small conveniences, go which-hunting, remove the defining whiches, and by so doing improve their work.

However, White himself did no such thing in his earlier writing. Thus there are five examples of restrictive which in his 3700-word essay "The Death of a Pig" (1948):

This was slapstick – the sort of dramatic treatment which instantly appealed to my old dachshund, Fred …

The pigs I have raised have lived in a faded building which once was an icehouse.

There is a pleasant yard to move about in, shaded by an apple tree which overhangs the low rail fence.

… an enormous earthworm which had been partially exposed by the spade at the bottom dug itself deeper and made a slow withdrawal …

… the premature expiration of a pig is, I soon discovered, a departure which the community marks solemnly on its calendar …

There are dozens of examples in White's published Letters, e.g.

… it seems to me that the promise which was made to the world by the Four Freedoms statement was justified (at least in the "want" clause) by the new feeling of responsibility which is evident in government.

For a long time I have been taking notes — sometimes on bits of paper, sometimes on the mind's disordered pad — on a theme which engrosses me.

This goal is arrived at by a bit of wizardry which I haven't yet mastered …

… you had hardly been out of town ten minutes when I wanted you back here to submit some sketches on New York subjects, to be used as little decorative illustrations of those poems which are on New York subjects.

I surmise that which-hunting must have been beaten into White by some overbearing New Yorker editor, during the development of that publication's magisterial linguistic idiosyncrasy.

If you want more details, you can read about the history at length in the MWDEU entry.

And for still more information, see Geoffrey Pullum's recent Lingua Franca column, "A rule which will live in infamy"; his web page "The myth that which is banned from integrated relatives"; or this long (but probably incomplete) list of earlier LL posts on the topic:

"Sidney Goldberg on NYT grammar: zero for three" (9/17/2004)
"Which vs. that: I have numbers" (9/17/2004)
"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)
"The people from the CCGW are here to see you"  (5/7/2005)
"What I currently know about that and which" (5/10/2005)
"Five more thoughts on the that rule" (5/22/2005)
"Smokin' too much Fowler" (5/29/2005)
"Still more Declaration of Independence" (7/10/2005)
"Ann Coulter, Grammarian" (10/7/2005)
"Grammatical indoctrination at law reviews" (10/8/2005)
"Did which-hunting change the laws of the game?" (10/10/2005)
"The unfab four" (5/14/2007)
"For National Grammar Day: Copy editors, we do not hate your guts!" (3/4/2008)
"Walking into a buzzsaw" (8/24/2009)
"When evidence counts for nothing and nobody will listen" (8/27/2009)
"One comma too many" (5/20/2010)
"Oddly enough, McArdle did not err" (5/23/2010)
"That which doesn't apply to English" (7/3/2010)
"Check all boxes" (10/22/2011)
"Which-hunting in uncomprehending darkness" (5/4/2012)
"A quantitative history of which-hunting" (9/5/2012).


  1. Justin said,

    December 24, 2012 @ 10:40 am

    Do keep in mind that the subreddits are typically created and managed by individuals not affiliated with reddit, which only offers the platform. As such, it may be most effective to take up such issues with the /r/grammar moderators directly. But I see this post has already been linked to there, so that should take care of that.

  2. Sili said,

    December 24, 2012 @ 10:41 am

    To be fair he said "careful writers" go which-hunting …

  3. Jimbino said,

    December 24, 2012 @ 11:39 am

    The fact remains: when a foreigner studying English asks me for advice regarding this rule, I have have to advise:

    1. If you observe the restrictive/destriptive that/which rule, neither language-log descriptivists nor prescriptivists will complain.

    2. If you do not observe the rule, language-log descriptivists won't complain, but many prescriptivists will.

    The choice is obvious.

    [(myl) This is indeed one of those ethical dilemmas, like whether to negotiate with terrorists, pay protection money to mobsters, or ransom stolen items from thieves. ("If you pay, your family's life goes on; if not, something unpleasant could happen… The choice is obvious.")

    Luckily, we're talking about English grammar and the history of certain prescriptive attitudes, not about how to cope with extortion. ]

  4. Ralph Hickok said,

    December 24, 2012 @ 11:52 am

    The choice is obvious only to those who are so terribly sensitive that they actually give a damn about complaints from prescriptivists.

  5. Briano said,

    December 24, 2012 @ 12:08 pm

    I've been active on /r/grammar for a while, and have complained about that awful thing multiple times. There's also a constant struggle in individual threads to stop prescriptivist poppycock from rising to the top. I think that as result of some of my and other's complaints in /r/badlinguistics (LL would love this subreddit—a compendium of awfulness), some actual linguists from /r/linguistics have been poking their heads in and making some effort to "clean up" /r/grammar.

  6. Jonathon Owen said,

    December 24, 2012 @ 12:39 pm

    Arnold Zwicky calls that approach "crazies win". I don't believe in giving in to the demands of linguistic terrorists.

  7. Dave K said,

    December 24, 2012 @ 1:10 pm

    To give you another reason why the rule makes no sense: deciding whetehr a clause is restrictive or non-restrictive is largely a matter of individual judgment. More than half the examples given from E.B. White are clauses I'd call non-restrictive.

    But damnit, sometimes "that" just feels right and sometimes "which " does.

  8. John Lawler said,

    December 24, 2012 @ 1:37 pm

    Since it's the season again, I link here to a piece on the use of that and which that's been on my website since Xmas 1995. The grammar hasn't changed, though.

  9. The Ridger said,

    December 24, 2012 @ 2:43 pm

    One is of course obliged to use "which" in restrictive clauses where the relative pronoun is governed by a preposition… unless one is willing to strand the preposition, something many prescriptivists are equally opposed to.

  10. Keith M Ellis said,

    December 24, 2012 @ 2:43 pm

    I've enjoyed the acerbic responses to Jimbino, but I think his point can be taken seriously, within reason. I see a lot of prescriptivist stuff, in practice, as being ultimately kind of an argument about register. Broadly, what we should do is speak/write within the contextually appropriate register. While much prescriptivist stuff is built around or justified by deeply erroneous ideas about language and accompanied by prejudices against classes of people, that doesn't change the fact that subcommunities have conventions and, by and large, it's better to conform to those conventions when operating within those subcommunities.

    That said, a lot of people want absolute answers/rules about this stuff. Well, all this kind of "stuff", including social mores. But, really, there's a fair amount of latitude. Anyone expecting very precise rules for how to completely "fit in" within any given social context is very unrealistic and asking for trouble. This is true for language usage.

    In that sense, a lot of the attention paid to certain guides and a lot of the argument about it has something to do with a certain personality type — the kind that demands explicit rules and for those rules to be rational and absolute. I've not thought about prescriptivist peeving so much in this way before now, but it strikes me that this plays a big role.

    In any case, Jimbino's advice may be practical for any given rule such as this one; but it's not practical for all such rules collectively. Its calculus is also unrealistically simplified with regard to who may or may not be offended. It shares the characteristics I've just described with prescriptivism: it substitutes some simple, universal rule for conditional, ambiguous judgment — which is what good writing instructors should be nudging their students toward, anyway.

    [(myl) There are two rather different questions here. One is what attitude to take towards the genuine norms of various varieties of English, and the other is how to respond to made-up "Zombie Rules". It's fine to decide to abide by the norms of some subcommunity, but there's little point in trying to please the Zombie-worshippers — these "rules" are useful to obnoxious peevers precisely because no one actually obeys them, so everyone can be put in the wrong.

    In neither case am I enthusiastic about the idea that everything depends on "conditional, ambiguous judgment", because that poses difficult and perhaps insuperable problems for those whose native variety of English (or other native language) is not a suitable basis for such judgments. (And it also puts more weight on individual intuitions than they often can bear, even for those with a lifetime of relevant experience.) I prefer the idea that we can learn what the norms of some variety of English are by examining the facts of usage.

    And one of the wonderful side-effects of networked computation is that you no longer need a roomful of cabinets stuffed with person-centuries of labor on slips of paper in order to determine what those facts are.]

  11. James C. said,

    December 24, 2012 @ 2:56 pm

    @Dave K:
    That’s incorrect. The distinction between restrictive and nonrestrictive relative clauses is not a matter of “individual judgement”. It is by no means arbitrary. The distinction is largely a semantic one but this does not mean that it is inconsistent between individuals. In some languages like English there are syntactic differences too, beyond just the constraint against ‘that’ in nonrestrictive relatives. Another distinction in English is intonational, but that is largely unavailable in writing except for commas. Finally, some languages apparently lack nonrestrictive relative clauses, but aside from an occasional exception – e.g. Pirahã, I suppose – every language seems to have restrictive relative clauses. Hence there is a cross-linguistic distinction between them, and if you believe in any kind of universal grammar theory then this means that there is a basic distinction between them in human language. If you don’t like UG, then there at least must be some emergent property of language that leads to the distinction between restrictive and nonrestrictive relative clauses. It is not arbitrary nor due to individual whims.

  12. Jason F. Siegel said,

    December 24, 2012 @ 8:12 pm

    It saddens me to see that /r/linguistics (linked in my name and below) is not given any mention here, even as we were mentioned recently on The Economist blog. As one of the moderators, I feel compelled to point out that we have over 5 times as many subscribers as /r/grammar, which is set aside as the prescriptivist haven, since prescription is not tolerated on /r/linguistics.

    Treat yourself this Christmas and come visit us at .

    [(myl) Sorry — /r/linguistics is also on my to-blog list. But I thought that the which/that link on /r/grammar deserved some coverage.]

  13. Jimbino said,

    December 24, 2012 @ 9:33 pm

    Ralph Hickok & Jonathon Owen:

    I have taught English to foreigners who were paying me to hone their skills for the purpose of landing a good job. I've also been in the position of hiring folks or recommending them for hiring. I've also interviewed women for the position of personal lover.

    There is no doubt that I've rejected many for reasons of bad grammar. I imagine that a descriptivist would accept anyone who came along, employee or lover, as long as he could google.

    I venture to say that if you opened a descriptivist ESL school next door to my prescriptivist one in Munich, you'd end up with no students, since Germans are very particular about their grammar, understanding that they suffer negative consequences if they say "Grüss Gott" or "der Butter" casually around the globe. They won't want to hear that whatever they manage to find by googling is good grammar. They know that, if that were so, they wouldn't need me as an English professor.

    And I'd be doing my American students of German no favors by telling them that it's OK to say "Reich mir den Butter, bitte."

  14. Arrant Pedantry » Blog Archive » Relative Pronoun Redux said,

    December 24, 2012 @ 9:45 pm

    […] Mark Liberman has a new post on the that/which rule which includes links to many of the previous Language Log posts on the […]

  15. Querty said,

    December 24, 2012 @ 10:22 pm

    "I've also interviewed women for the position of personal lover"

    Yeah, I tend to be much more a stickler when interviewing people for "personal lover" than when I have to interview them in my work capacity for positions as "corporate lover" or "government lover." And say what you will, but the government lover programs in Europe's social democracies have certainly gotten more bang for the buck, as it were. The US still holds out on insisting on an inefficient and ineffective system dominated by private lover-ship.

    One wonders if this is a troll. For one thing, s/he places an odd distance between their evaluations and actions: "There is no doubt that I've rejected many [potential employees or lovers" on the basis of "bad grammar". Whatever jimbino is, a fan of precision s/he is not. After all, I for one doubt that they've indeed done this, so the blanket assertion that there isn't any doubt is falsified. Perhaps they meant that they find no doubt within themselves–reminding me of a question a Slate writer asked about Ari Fleischer's circumlocutions: "Is it even possible for one to hope one's hopes will be dashed?"* And it's a bit rich to conflate prescriptivism with "bad grammar"–though "I've rejected potential lovers, and employees, because they didn't adhere to a number of arbitrary rules based not on actual custom or practice but in 'truthiness' and bad history" doesn't sound as catchy…

    *Full quote: "I think that, as always, the President wants events to develop over time in a way that he hopes will be fruitful …" That "as always" is truly bravura banality. Never for one moment has the president wavered in his desire to see events develop in ways he hopes will be fruitful. Logicians may puzzle over how it is even possible to hope that your own hopes be dashed, but in case it is possible, the president is not doing it."

  16. Jerry Friedman said,

    December 24, 2012 @ 11:46 pm

    And in this season, I'll add that the first example I know of a that-which prescription is from Alexander Bain, at least as early as 1872. It might date to the first edition of his Higher English Grammar in 1863, but I can't find that edition. His justification is that it was the practice of the older writers.

    @The Ridger: Bain did indeed recommend reserving "which" and "who(m)" for non-restrictive clauses and stranding prepositions to do so.

    [(myl) Interesting. When he writes that "In modern style, 'Who' and 'Which' are often used for restriction instead of 'That'—the relative preferred by the old writers", I wonder what "old writers" he has in mind. If we go back a century to vol. III of Tristram Shandy, for example, we find restrictive uses of which every couple of pages, starting in the second paragraph:

    My uncle Tory's wish did Dr. Slop a disservice which his heart never intended any man,

    … perceiving, I say, that he was confounded, and continued looking with that perplexed vacuity of eye which puzzled souls generally stare with …

    … nor is it thy fault, if all the children which have been, may, can, shall, will or ought to be begotten, come with their heads foremost into the world …

    We can go back more than a century before that, and in the first of John Donne's sermons that we look at, we find several restrictive uses of which in the first couple of pages:

    This is one of those seven Epistles, which Athanasius and Origen call'd Catholick; that is, universal …

    … it was not the punishment which they feel in hell but the sin which they committed in heaven which made them divels …


  17. Jonathon Owen said,

    December 25, 2012 @ 12:51 am

    "I imagine that a descriptivist would accept anyone who came along, employee or lover, as long as he could google."

    Nope! Descriptivism isn't an "anything-goes" philosophy as so many people like to say, nor is it about teaching that there really aren't any rules. It's about discovering what the rules really are by making observations, gathering facts, and discovering the system that governs it all, rather than decreeing what the rules are and ignoring any evidence to the contrary.

    Here's a post I wrote about what descriptivism is and isn't, and here's another one about the false dichotomy between prescriptivism and descriptivism. And here's a new one about the real system underlying relative pronouns in English.

  18. John Walden said,

    December 25, 2012 @ 2:43 am

    To speak British English is to be a member of a large sub-community that has no truck with this "rule", to the extent of not having even heard about it for the most part.

    The term "careful writers" is beginning to annoy me more and more.

  19. David Morris said,

    December 25, 2012 @ 4:21 am

    I have enough difficulty getting my students to understand and produce relative clauses *at all*, let alone to understand the difference between restrictive and non-restrictive ones. In fact, I often wonder whether the vast majority of native English speakers would understand the difference.
    As I see it, 'which' can be used in almost every possible type of relative clause, whereas 'that' is … um … restricted in its use. 'that' also has enough other work to do as a demonstrative and complementiser, so let's spare it the work of a relative pronoun as well.
    In my own writing, I try to use 'which' in restrictive sentences, but I find myself typing 'that' automatically, and always feel a bit naughty changing it.

  20. Sid Smith said,

    December 25, 2012 @ 4:55 am

    @ John Walden

    This fellow Brit agrees that most of us don't know or care about this 'rule'. (Do most Americans, actually?)

    But the rule is enforced in UK newspapers, where I work. Despite a professional requirement to understand it, I've never bothered – but I've found it can be summed up as "always use 'that' except where it's impossible". Outside the office, I ignore the rule.

  21. Eric P Smith said,

    December 25, 2012 @ 7:00 am

    Should the headline not read as follows?
    Reddit Bluit

    [(myl) I think you're right.]

  22. Jerry Friedman said,

    December 25, 2012 @ 9:47 am

    @MYL: Actually, I now see that Richard Hershberger in a comment here "credited" the that-which rule to Goold Brown. (I really should have remembered that.) Indeed, here's what Goold Brown said about it in 1851. In Observation 31 (p. 292), he recommends it "for distinction's sake".

    Incidentally, in Obs. 33, he quotes Hugh Blair in 1783 (I think) as making an argument sometimes seen here: that as that has so many meanings, we should use which as a relative whenever possible. He then rebuts this argument.

    I haven't seen anyone but Bain claim that the "old writers" didn't use which for restrictive clauses. Maybe his fellow which-hunters, such as Ayres, suffered less from confirmation bias.

  23. Jerry Friedman said,

    December 25, 2012 @ 2:49 pm

    Maybe I should add that, as LL veterans will have predicted, Goold Brown ignored his own advice: "I do not approve of adding an other sound to a vowel which has already quite too many."

  24. chemiazrit said,

    December 25, 2012 @ 3:45 pm

    No surprise a which-hunter would like Jimbino would feel compelled to defend his embattled esoteric cult hereabouts. How lonely it must be when neither 98% of the ordinary English-speaking public nor any serious academic specialist gives your faith the slightest credence whatsoever.

    Great comedy value, though. "You do look sexy in that slinky black number, Toots! However, I'm afraid your use of the restrictive 'which' is a major turn off. Next!"

  25. the other Mark P said,

    December 25, 2012 @ 5:08 pm

    I have taught English to foreigners who were paying me to hone their skills

    But teaching the which/that restriction in most of the world would not be "honing their skills". It would be wasting time on pedantry.

    What you are teaching, at best, is American. Because it sure isn't English.

    The bit about teaching Germans is ridiculous. On the fact of it you appear to say that we should teach Germans that English grammar is as precise as German grammar in such things. While you might be popular, you would be teaching a lie. And then you get a bunch of very well spoken Germans who are confused because they can't work out which rules they have been taught to obey are, in fact, bogus.

  26. Sid Smith said,

    December 26, 2012 @ 4:59 am

    @ the other Mark P

    I used to teach English to foreigners and was sometimes required by schools to teach those tag question thingies ('didn't he,' 'couldn't he have', etc, at the end of sentences): pretty difficult for them, of course.

    I'd swiftly tell them that they need never use a single one.

  27. Daniel Barkalow said,

    December 26, 2012 @ 11:32 am

    I'd like to see a style guide that said something like:

    When deciding whether to use which or that for a restrictive relative clause, you must first consider your audience. If you are writing for morons, you must use that, because they will otherwise entirely ignore what you are trying to say and complain about your perfectly good usage. If you are somehow blessed with an audience competent in English, you may use whichever sounds better, or decide based on which would less easily lead to an undesired interpretation (e.g., "the book that I was reading" but "the claim which I was reading"). Of course, it is rarely possible to be sure that your audience does not contain morons, and even a sensible audience cannot tell your actual motivation for choosing that and take offense, so restrictive which is best reserved for personal communication with those you know and trust. It is particularly to be avoided when writing for those of the legal profession and the readership of The New Yorker, both groups which include morons best not annoyed (not you, of course, dear reader, if you are in either group).

  28. Jonathon Owen said,

    December 28, 2012 @ 10:48 pm

    @Daniel Barkalow:

    I'd buy a style guide like that.

  29. Simon H said,

    December 29, 2012 @ 1:19 pm

    When teaching English in Tunisia at the British Council (with non-academic students), the students explicitly requested that I focus on language that was used by ordinary speakers, rather than stiff rules that no one followed. By contrast, my students at the University of Tunis focused all their efforts on those rules, citing ones that made "which" and "that" seem sane. But then, they lived and died by exams that routinely failed half of them and were far removed from the actual production or comprehension of language.

  30. Steven said,

    January 2, 2013 @ 5:52 pm

    While it's always nice to see a recent mention on the web of my old friend and mentor, the late great Marc Grinker, it's too bad to see him criticised for writing "nonsense" (and unable to defend himself), when he was merely citing standard usage. Keep in mind the intended audience: He was writing for law students, those learning to write legal papers for school and, ultimately, briefs for court, without making errors that would make them look stupid to professors, partners and judges. His advice, in this limited context, is exactly right. Furthermore, a "tradition" that goes back to E.B. White, circa 1959, is indeed a "tradition." Perhaps it would be better to have said: "A traditional approach to this question – one that goes back at least to 1959 – is to use 'that' with restrictive clauses and 'which' with nonrestrictive clauses. While poets and scholars of 19th century and early 20th century literature may dispute the point (and quite rightly so), nevertheless if one follows this basic rule, one is unlikely to encounter any serious resistance from the circuit court judges of today." But such a caveat would have been unnecessary in this context. Marc was a brilliant guy and one of the least nonsensical fellows around, and I learned a huge amount from him. I believe that law students reading his guidance even today would come away with practical style advice that is absolutely correct for today's legal world.

  31. Adrian said,

    January 2, 2013 @ 9:58 pm

    @Jimbino: I regularly tell my students of German that it's okay to say stuff like "Reich mir den Butter, bitte," if by "okay" you mean that people will understand them. Teachers should be honest. I also point out, for example, that they shouldn't be offended if someone says "Gib mir (mal) die Butter," since most Germans don't stand on ceremony. Grammar is all very well, but it isn't the whole story.

  32. That which is restrictive « Sentence first said,

    January 5, 2013 @ 8:28 am

    […] Liberman at Language Log laments a link at Reddit perpetuating the "phony" rule, and provides a brisk summary of […]

  33. This Week’s Language Blog Roundup: Passings, words of the year, foreign words | Wordnik said,

    January 17, 2013 @ 10:11 am

    […] At Macmillan Dictionary blog, Stan Carey explained nominalisation and zombification and told us to try to (or is it and?) get over it. At Language Log, Victor Mair tackled iPhone ideography depicting the plot of Les Miserables, and Mark Liberman considered the malapropism, shunned their noses at us; the unclear shooting dead people; and grammar on Reddit. […]

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