Friday, October 07, 2005

Grammar Nazi

For the folks reeling and dizzy at the prospect of actually agreeing with Ann Coulter about something, the world must be spinning off its axis.

It's really fun to watch the Other Side experience the sleazeball sophistry of the Coulter Method, if only momentarily. This in particular jumped out:
One Web site defending Bush's choice of a graduate from an undistinguished law school complains that Miers' critics "are playing the Democrats' game," claiming that the "GOP is not the party which idolizes Ivy League acceptability as the criterion of intellectual and mental fitness." (In the sort of error that results from trying to sound "Ivy League" rather than being clear, that sentence uses the grammatically incorrect "which" instead of "that." Web sites defending the academically mediocre would be a lot more convincing without all the grammatical errors.)
(Isn't that just so Ann? One putative grammatical error becomes "all the grammatical errors".... There's got to be a name for this greasy technique; I'd like to propose Coulterian Multiplication.)

At any rate, Ann's trying to score some cheap points here by schoolmarmishly twitting an unidentified Web site for a grammatical solecism. (Interestingly -- and oh, so Coulterianly -- she doesn't tell us which Web site it is; nor does she provide a hyperlink so we can verify her assertion that such a sentence even exists -- for all we know, she made the damned thing up.)

"Which" versus "that" is a rule of thumb, not a hard-and-fast law of grammar. I've seen many, many well-established authors (chiefly, but not exclusively, British) of enormous literary repute who exclusively employ "which" to offset restrictive clauses. I'm a former copy editor; this is the sort of thing that jumps out at you.

The particular use of "which" not "that" that Ann so confidently decries ("The GOP is not the party which idolizes Ivy League acceptability...") isn't actually incorrect at all. The phrase means exactly the same with either word employed. Go ahead; try it. "That" is preferred by many US styleguides in that case, but that doesn't mean that not using it is a violation of some kind of Immutable Olympian Law of Grammar, to be invoked by finger-wagging sleazeball wingnut columnists trying to make you look stupid.

There are times when offsetting a restrictive clause with "which" is truly incorrect. The sentence,
All the patrol boats in the Navy which are sinking should be scrapped.
is worlds away in meaning from
All the patrol boats in the Navy that are sinking should be scrapped.
But that doesn't apply to the usage that Ann castigates.

Stupid bitch.

The sentence under discussion is, it must be admitted, monumentally crappy: the phrase "which idolizes Ivy League acceptability as the criterion" is about as pompously clumsy a thing as I've read all month, but criticism of style isn't Ann's strong suit. She'd rather serve up a cheeseball dinger that she thinks nobody's going to call her on. Sorry -- on which nobody's going to call her.

Well, I just did.


XTCfan said...

Ah, c'mon Ned, you're just calling out Ann because you're jealous that Bobby has already rumbled with her.

(You are perfectly right, though.)

Nobody said...

The simple reason why I love language is that it's always in a state of constant change, and can be played with and manipulated the way an artist might work with clay.

Grammar be damned! If you can't find the word you need, create your own. Have fun and pun with your speech. It's fluid and funky and context gives meaning.

Sorry, Grammar Nazism is a particular pet hate of mine when I enjoy language as much as I do.

Ann is obviously trying to imply a lack of grammar = lack of formal education = untrained writing therefore unreliable facts. It's someone unable to find a valid counterarguement to the facts in question, and so desperately clutches at pedantic straws in the way the arguement was worded.

It's so blindingly obvious I'm really confused about the level of public discourse in America. Good lord, people take her seriously?

Neil Shakespeare said...

Say, does 'People' or 'US' or some magazine like which that have a contest that which names the "Sleaziest Woman of the Year" that which was?

Lance Mannion said...

I love it when Ann goes all schoolmarmishy. You know what else is hot? Her naughty maid routine! Wowza!

To tell you the truth, that/which mixups drive me up the wall too. And, Ned, old egg, you've hit the n. right on the old h. The Brits do it far more than we Yanks, including---oh, say it ain't so!---PG Wodehouse.

Shakespeare goes farther! He mixes up who and that repeatedly.

blue girl said...

There's lots of discussion going on over at my place today about Ann Coulter -- and it's about words -- certainly not "that" or "which" -- but another word altogether...

And it's not all hoity-toity grammar stuff, neither honey.

Luckily no one spelled it out -- I would truly fear my search engine hits (that would give me stress, which might make me irritable...)

Bobby Lightfoot said...

She sure does talk up a storm for a woman who has 18 vestigial nipples.


Neddie said...

--Shakespeare goes farther! He mixes up who and that repeatedly.--

Ah, go get some sack-time, Lance. You know: "Sleep that knits up the ravell'd sleeve of care."


Don Porges said...

The crew at Language Log post frequently on how the that/which thing is hooey, and they didn't miss this opportunity.

Linkmeister said...

I would like to point out that if you've once been a copy editor, you are always a copy editor. It's ingrained.

res publica said...

Nothing is more bloggaliciously tasty than a discussion of a relatively arcane point of grammar v. so succinctly summarized with a tart "Stupid bitch"! Totally awesome.

grishaxxx said...

Actually, I love the that v. which problem, and I'll willingly recast a sentence in favor of a that construction. The old Fowler is good on this.

But Ann is still a cunt.

PixelWeasel said...

So, GrammarBoy, the blue-pencil mavens in my shop think you’re grammatically as muddle-headed as Ann Coulter, and self-righteously pedantic to boot. That’s bad news when you’re wrong – makes you look like a complete fool. Commas, GB, commas – that’s what the “which” clause requires.

(We’re going with the Chicago Manual of Style FAQ, “Which vs. That”: “The basic rule: Use ‘which’ plus commas to set off nonrestrictive clauses; use ‘that’ to introduce a restrictive clause.” Your example doesn’t follow the exception the CMOS notes for writers of British English, either.)

Vache Folle said...

She actually looks better with the little moustache.