Tuesday, October 11, 2005

GrammarBoy Doesn't Take It Lying Down

One PixelWeasel has submitted a Comment on my Ann Coulter, Grammar Nazi, post, and I thought it was worth surfacing to the front page, not least to increase the likelihood of it being seen. Here's the comment:
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.)
I'm puzzled, PixWeasel, at exactly what it is you suppose me to have gotten wrong. I think it's because I supplied an example of a nonrestrictive clause employing which without setting it off with commas. Otherwise, I hunt in vain for an actual point in your comment.

My comma-less example was taken directly from Words Into Type (Third Edition, p. 378), if you want to play Dueling Styleguides. The absence of commas in the example is deliberate, to clarify the rule of thumb (their phrase), which is that "when a comma can be inserted, the word is which." I suggest you take up the choice of the phrase "rule of thumb" with that book's editors.

Tell me: what would your ink-stained wretches do with Franklin Roosevelt's phrase "a day which will live in infamy"? Strike FDR's which and replace it with that? I believe the Chicago Manual would insist on it, and that's the point I was implying: That hidebound copy editors insist on the application of Rules as if they were Laws -- frequently to the detriment of lively and perfectly comprehensible writing. "A day, which will live in infamy" is simply absurd; "A day that will live in infamy" is absolutely unchanged in meaning from FDR's original.

You've said nothing that undermines my central point: that Coulter's criticism of that anonymous web site for linguistic elitism was itself incorrect (she would definitely have edited FDR's phrase), and that she was trying to score gratuitous points by twitting their grammar. This is sleazy rhetoric -- not to mention, a really cheap shot.

I think your blue-pencil crowd will enjoy Mark Liberman's Language Log post, which Don Porges brought to our attention. The Executive Summary (emphases mine):
...[T]he prohibition against using which to introduce integrated relative clauses is a made-up "rule", unsanctioned by the usage of good writers in any era. Still, I think that there's a germ of sociolinguistic truth in Coulter's theory -- "which hunting" is a favorite sport of down-market American copy editors,[oooh, take that, boys and girls] so that the rate of which in integrated relatives is lower in American journalism than it is in British journalism. As a result, integrated which may indeed have an elitist flavor for those American readers who have noticed the difference.
The Language Log post also provides copious examples of sentences from Coulter's demigod Ronald Reagan employing which in exactly the way you claim is incorrect in my example.

See also:

Five more thoughts on the that rule (Arnold Zwicky, 5/22/2005)

What I currently know about which and that (Arnold Zwicky, 5/10/2005)

The people from the CCGW are here to see you (Arnold Zwicky, 5/7/2005)

Don't do this at home, kiddies! (Arnold Zwicky, 5/3/2005)

Which vs. that: integration gradation (Mark Liberman, 9/23/2004)

Which vs that: a test of faith (Mark Liberman, 9/20/2004) ("Copy-editors' strictures against using which in integrated relatives are an invention -- what in ordinary life we would call a lie -- with no basis in the facts of the English language. Specifically, that is no longer used in supplementary relatives; but in integrated relatives, both which and that continue to be in common use by all the best writers, as has been true for centuries.")

Which vs. that: I have numbers (Geoff Pullum, 9/19/2004)

Sidney Goldberg on NYT grammar: zero for three (Geoff Pullum, 9/17/2004)


Anonymous said...

Lovely pair of posts.

The article Coulter is quoting is from The American Thinker, and can be found here.

Cheers --

Teresa Nielsen Hayden

Vache Folle said...

Thank you for defending "which", a perfectly cromulent word.

XTCfan said...

Ooh, grammar fight, grammar fight! Love it.

Life's a which, ain't it?

Member of the red-pen crowd (blue pencils are so pre-'90s),


Neil Shakespeare said...

Me too! I miss the Friday Night Grammar Fights! "Dueling Styleguides". Love that.

Hieronymo said...

The one place I regularly encounter a dogmatic insistence on the use of "that" with a defining relative clause is in Microsoft Word's cretinous grammar checker.

You don't think that's where Coulter got her big idea, do you?

By the way, there are no fewer than seven red-hot pages on this issue in my Oxford Language Classics edition of Fowler 1. Worth $11.53 of anybody's money.

PixelWeasel said...

So, did we see Pixelweasel slinking off into the thickets of bit and byte, withdrawn from the fray, humbled at the keyboard of GrammarBoy?

PW has had other fish to fry, and hasn’t been diligent in visiting various sites online. Had he but known that GB would throw down the gauntlet, however, had he but known the honor to be accorded him by GB, he would have made a more timely return. It is unfortunate, however, to return to see GB as grammatically muddled as ever.

The point. Yes, the point. The point, GrammarBoy, is that the examples you adduce, about sinking ships, both have restrictive clauses (regardless of the relative pronoun – which or that – used), and specify a class of boat in the Navy: the sinking ones. All of those sinking ones should be replaced. The sentences are not "worlds away in meaning"; they are identical in meaning. If GB would like to impart the information that all the patrol boats in the Navy should be replaced, and that incidentally all the patrol boats are sinking, he would have to set off that information in the which clause with commas. Must set it off with commas. That’s my point, GrammarBoy.

You might like to look at http://www.worldwidewords.org/articles/which.htm, for a relatively readable discussion of the matter.

Or if you prefer, Fowler (a bit fusty): http://www.bartleby.com/116/205.html.

As for FDR's locution, Fowler might say that it was an infamous day for grammar when he drafted it. Fowler would choose that.

Neddie said...

The PixelWeasel deliberately misreads my examples, which (note use, JESUS CHRIST) were DELIBERATELY incorrect to MAKE A POINT, as I said not once but twice. I KNOW GODDAMNED WELL that a restrictive clause IS SET OFF WITH COMMAS.

The PixelWeasel pretty obviously did not read any of the materials -- nine hyperlinks to some of today's most respected grammarians -- all of whom scorn the utterly pedantic schoolmarmish notion that there is some kind of "rule" that says that unrestrictive clauses MUST NOT be set off with the word "which." Even your William Fowler doesn't make this ridiculous claim.

This matter of commas is a diversion from the original point. Ann Coulter was ridiculing a political rival for having used "which" instead of "that" in an unrestrictive clause, which (NOTE FUCKING USE, GODDAMN IT) she scorned as pretentious. You STILL haven't refuted this point.

I stand by everything I've said on the matter, and am prepared to go to the mat.

And if you ask which language authority I prefer between the Chicago Manual of Style and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, I'll go with FDR every time: a man who actually influenced language by using it rather than attempting to capture it, like light, in a bottle.

I beg you at least to read this post, in which the author does a little Real-World research. I'll let it stand as my last word on the topic:

The people who repeat the old story about which being banned do not respect the prohibition in their own writing.... As a check on just how common it is in excellent writing, I searched electronic copies of a few classic novels to find the line on which they first use which to introduce an integrated relative, to tell us how much of the book you would need to read before you ran into an instance:

* A Christmas Carol (Dickens): 1,921 lines, first occurrence on line 217 = 11% of the way through;
* Alice in Wonderland (Carroll): 1,618 lines, line 143 = 8%;
* Dracula (Stoker): 9,824 lines, line 8 = less than 1%;
* Lord Jim (Conrad): 8,045 lines, line 15 = 1%;
* Moby Dick (Melville): 10,263 lines, line 103 = 1%;
* Wuthering Heights (Bronte): 7,599 lines, line 56 = 0.736%...

Do I need to go on? No. The point is clear. On average, by the time you've read about 3% of a book by an author who knows how to write you will already have encountered an integrated relative clause beginning with which. They are fully grammatical for everyone. The copy editors are enforcing a rule which has no support at all in the literature that defines what counts as good use of the English language. Their which hunts are pointless time-wasting nonsense.

Neddie said...

Follow-On. Fowler, 1965:

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.

Neddie said...

Also, PixelWeasel, you didn't read Quinion all the way through. Off you go.