Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Annals of 'which' and 'that'

This just in from Whichfinder-Generall Ed Latham, an editing colleague across the pond, who spotted the sign on a housing estate "where non-restrictive clauses run wild and free."

"Have to say that the estate didn't *look* abandoned," he notes, "but it's going to be quite a popular place to live if it is, indeed, untaxed."


Blogger Jan said...

The commas shouldn't be there, it's true, but the "which" is fine -- especially in England, where the which/that fetish has not entirely taken hold.

11:33 AM, May 09, 2012  
Blogger fev said...

Agreed -- what sets this apart, I think, is that errors in this direction are rarer than the other direction (making nonrestrictive clauses restrictive).

I have seen cases in which (apparently) editors overcorrect by putting commas around a restrictive 'which' clause. I wonder if that's what happened to the sign maker.

11:57 AM, May 09, 2012  
Anonymous Ed Latham said...

I agree too, basically – except that I do quail at the prospect of non-restrictive clauses clinging to existence by commas alone, given reporters' tendency to scatter punctuation around like seasoning.

I think there's almost a case for continuing to teach 'which/that' as a prophylactic, just to reinforce in writers' minds the huge differences in meaning that an accidental restriction (or failure to restrict) might bring.

12:34 PM, May 09, 2012  
Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

The biggest problem with teaching it is that anybody who reads anything written before the notion took hold will be confused. "Clinging to existence by commas alone" is what they always did. Teaching people otherwise is taking a recent and made-up rule and pretending that it's both old and actual.

Here the problem arose from dropping the relativizer in front of "left on the estate". An "and" in front of that which would remove all confusion.

1:53 PM, May 09, 2012  
Blogger fev said...

This Fox lede struck me as an example of the randomness of the journalistic comma:

President Obama on Wednesday endorsed same-sex marriages, becoming the first sitting U.S. president to take that position following days of speculation about his "evolving" stance on the issue.

5:02 PM, May 09, 2012  
Anonymous Ed Latham said...

Yes, I wasn't suggesting teaching it as a rule (even Fowler – who I think was the major proponent of this idea – describes it as a 'plea'). But his proposal does identify a point of instability in the structure of English that a professional writer ought to be wary of. Maybe it could be taught, not as a rule, but as good practical technique (as it still is to parliamentary draftspeople in several jurisdictions)?

5:15 PM, May 09, 2012  

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