Grammar correction

E. in Florida writes:

In the previous entry, it should be “America’s system of white skin privilege THAT keeps blacks down,” not WHICH keeps blacks down. I’m sure you were writing in haste. You are my grammar guru (gerund takes the possessive!), so I thought you wouldn’t mind the note.

Have you seen the discussions that say that those of us who prefer correct grammar are racists because not everyone knows the rules but they can still get their point across?

LA replies:

I have to make a confession. I’m not on top of what the that/which rule is for every possible situation, of which there are several tricky ones. As a result, I often choose “that” or “which” by feel, not by knowledge of a rule. In those instances, I sometimes sense that there is a rule backing up my feeling, but I can’t articulate it.

In this case, I think my “which” is correct. I’m too tired at the moment to explain why, but here is a simple way to make my point. Suppose there were a comma after “privilege”:

… had it not been for America’s system of white skin privilege, which keeps blacks down and forces them into a life of crime.

In that case I think you would have no problem with the “which.”

So, if the “which” is ok with the comma, it is ok without the comma.

I will try to think about this again to tomorrow when I’m fresh and get back to you with a better explanation. It’s important for me to get to the bottom of this.

Stephen Hopewell writes:

I know there’s a rule about “which” versus “that” commonly accepted these days, which (!) declares that “that” is to be used for restrictive clauses, and “which” for nonrestrictive clauses.

See here, for example.

However, I know that I personally preferred “which” for restrictive clauses in many cases for most of my life, and never had anyone correct it, and when I look in books written more than 20 years ago this usage is quite common. Recently editors have become absolutists on this matter, and Microsoft Word’s grammar check also enforces it. However, there’s an arbitrariness to it that (!) I resent. Usage of “which” and “that” (and “who,” etc.) has been rather fluid throughout the history of English, as is apparent from a look at Shakespearian usage.

When I write professionally, I follow the rule, but when not constrained I happily use “which,” in defiance of Microsoft Word. It may be hard to persist in this forever, though.

I’m not a relativist on grammar in general, but there are some matters that we should decide by the ear and not by the rule.

March 10

Rhona writes:

I’m big on grammar and word usage myself. For example, I can’t stand the constant substitution of the verb “impact” for “affect.” It’s almost as if “affect” has been dropped from usage. (With regard to “impacted,” I always think of wisdom teeth.)

Regarding the use of which and that, Strunk and White indicate that “which” is to be used after a comma (independent v. dependent clause) and “that” is to be used in other cases. However, the use of “which” often just sounds better—more educated, perhaps. At Franklin Roosevelt’s home in Hyde Park, you can see his comments and changes on his Pearl Harbor speech. He changes, in his own hand, “that” to “which” in the famous phrase “a date which will live in infamy.” Clearly, based upon grammatical rules, “that” should have been used. As I have no doubt that he received the finest grammar education at the prep schools he went to, “which” just sounded better to his ear.

LA replies:

Excellent point. I often do the same as Roosevelt did with that sentence. But I don’t think his reason was that “which” sounds more “educated.” Rather, “which” has a richer, stronger feel, which sometimes is needed. Certainly he made the right choice with that phrase.

LA writes:

A full consideration of the that/which question, which I intended to write up today, will take more time.

Rick Darby writes:

“That/which” is one of those silly rules made by and for the verbal bureaucrats known as editors, who love correcting others’ “mistakes” but generally can hardly write a decent sentence themselves. If Strunk and White, who usually display a sensible attitude about writing clearly, are behind this mischief then their regulation should be vetoed.

True, an independent clause following a comma needs “which” to clarify that it is independent. [LA replies: A clause beginning with “which” is a dependent clause.] But a dependent clause, sans comma, works perfectly well with “which” as a lead-off. In fact, British writers, who have not been blessed with lashings of Strunk and White, go with “which” in dependent clauses more often than not.

“That/which,” among the pseudo-elegant distinctions beloved of prissy editors (another: “ensure/insure”), has trickled down just enough into popular usage among those who self-identify as intellectuals to result in “which hunting.” A little learning is a dangerous thing, so the which hunters believe that “which” is tainted and must always be replaced by “that.” The result (e.g., “The New York Times, that I read every day”) betrays the same desperation to sound ritzy as the definitely ungrammatical “between you and I.”

Good editors do exist, a minority who have a genuine feeling for language, but they are outnumbered by those who foster rule inflation.

LA replies:

I’ve never seen anyone write a phrase like, “The New York Times, that I read every day.”

While Rick Darby makes several good points, I don’t agree with his complete rejection of all rules governing that/which.

Rick Darby writes:

I believe a clause separated by a comma (and beginning with “which”) is an independent clause, because its meaning is independent of the first clause. You could drop it and the sentence would still be meaningful, although it would include less information.

The clause not separated by a comma is dependent, as I understand it, because it is integral to the sentence. Delete it and you could still have a grammatical sentence, but the meaning would change significantly because it depends on that clause.

LA replies:

That’s not correct. An independent clause is a clause that contains its own subject and predicate and could stand by itself as a sentence. Independent clauses are linked by coordinating conjunctions such as “and,” “or,” or “but.” Consider the sentence: “It was raining, but he went out without an umbrella.” The clause “It was raining” could stand by itself as a sentence. The clause “he went out without an umbrella” could stand by itself as a sentence. They are both independent clauses linked by the coordinating conjunction “but.”

A dependent clause also has its own subject and predicate, but its subject is dependent on an independent clause to which it is linked. It cannot stand by itself as a sentence. There are various types of dependent clauses. Wikipedia gives several examples. One type of dependent clause not discussed in the Wikipedia article is a relative clause, meaning that it begins with a relative pronoun, such as which or that.

A web page on clauses expands on what I just said:

Relative clauses are dependent clauses introduced by a Relative Pronoun (that, which, whichever, who, whoever, whom, whomever, whose, and of which). Relative clauses can be either restrictive or nonrestrictive. Review the section on Comma Usage for additional help in determining whether relative clauses are restrictive or nonrestrictive (parenthetical or not) and whether commas should be used to set them off from the rest of the sentence. In a relative clause, the relative pronoun is the subject of the verb (remember that all clauses contain a subject-verb relationship) and refers to (relates to) something preceding the clause.

Giuseppe said that the plantar wart, which had been bothering him for years, had to be removed.

[end of excerpt]

In the above sentence, the clause “which had been bothering him for years” is a dependent clause. Its subject is “which,” a relative pronoun which is relative to and dependent on the word “wart.” The clause “which had been bothering him for years” could not stand by itself as a sentence. Therefore it is a dependent clause.

Also see Wikipedia’s article on independent clause.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at March 09, 2011 09:58 PM | Send

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