T Is for That

That is a handy and versatile word. It can be an adjective:

That puppy followed me home.

Or an adverb:

Are you that sure of yourself?

Or a pronoun, standing in for a person, place, thing, event, or anything else that is clear from context:

That is the way we’ve always done it.

Or a conjunction:

She insisted that we show up on time.

Or a relative pronoun, which is sort of a cross between a pronoun and a conjunction:

Any map that shows my road as two-way needs to be updated.

In the grammar and usage section of the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS), Bryan Garner puts it more elegantly: “A relative pronoun is one that introduces a dependent (or relative) clause and relates it to the independent clause. Relative pronouns in common use are who, which, what, and that” (CMS 16th ed., section 5.54).

Here’s where things get interesting, maybe a little confusing, and sometimes even contentious. These “dependent (or relative) clauses” can be either restrictive or nonrestrictive, or, as they’re sometimes called, essential or nonessential. Borrowing from CMS again: “A relative cause is said to be restrictive if it provides information that is essential to the meaning of the sentence. . . . A relative clause is said to be nonrestrictive if it could be omitted without obscuring the identity of the noun to which it refers or otherwise changing the meaning of the rest of the sentence” (CMS 16, section 6.22).

Here’s a restrictive clause:

The novel that we’re reading this month can be found in the library.

And here’s a nonrestrictive one:

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which we’re reading for class, was published in 1985.

Here’s where the contentiousness comes in. Have you in your travels come across the “which/that distinction”? I don’t believe I was aware of it before I got my first editing job, in the publications office of a big nonprofit in Washington, D.C. My mentor was a crackerjack editor with decades of experience in New York publishing. Thanks to her I’ve been able to more or less support myself as an editor all these years. She was a stickler for correct usage, and as her apprentice I internalized most of her thou shalts and thou shalt nots.

High among the thou shalts was Thou shalt use only “that” for restrictive clauses and only “which” for nonrestrictive clauses, and “which” must be preceded by a comma.

This is the which/that distinction, and like many another novice editor I became a zealous enforcer of it. Worse, I became a tad smug about it. As I like to say, “everyone’s the hero of their own story,” and for copyeditors, whose brains are crammed with rules and guidelines, this sometimes leads to a conviction that it’s our esoteric knowledge that stands between us and the collapse of civilization, or at least the English language.

In other words, I looked down my snoot at any writer who used “which” for restrictive clauses.

Until I noticed, before too many years had passed, that writers of British English (BrE) regularly used “which” for restrictive clauses without their prose collapsing into a muddle.

And that speakers of American English (AmE) often don’t make the distinction in conversation.

Hmmm. By this point, the which/that distinction was so ingrained that I applied it without thinking in my own writing and in editing as well. This stands me in good stead in U.S. trade publishing, where which/that is still a thou shalt in many quarters.  Nearly all of the AmE writers whose work I edit apply it automatically, so I don’t have to change anything.

With BrE writers, at first I’d diligently change all the restrictive whiches to thats, but then I started getting uneasy. The which/that distinction is a convention, not a rule. I wasn’t improving the prose in any way by enforcing it. Most important, by diligently enforcing a distinction that didn’t need to be enforced, I was pretty sure I was missing more important stuff. Like many other editors and proofreaders I learned early on that the mistakes I missed usually came in close proximity to the ones I caught. It’s as if the editorial brain takes a self-congratulatory pause after each good catch, and in that moment an obvious error can slip through.

So I stopped automatically changing all those whiches to thats. I’d note on my style sheet “which OK for restrictive clauses” so the proofreader wouldn’t flip out and think the copyeditor was asleep at the keyboard. So far the language hasn’t collapsed and my publisher clients haven’t dumped me, but it still feels a little daring so I look over my shoulder a lot to see who’s watching.

Garner notes that the restrictive that is used “in polished American prose,” but that “in British English, writers and editors seldom observe the distinction between the two words.”

Says the usage note in Merriam-Webster’s:

Although some handbooks say otherwise, that and which are both regularly used to introduce restrictive clauses in edited prose. Which is also used to introduce nonrestrictive clauses. That was formerly used to introduce nonrestrictive clauses; such use is virtually nonexistent in present-day edited prose, though it may occasionally be found in poetry.

In its much lengthier usage noteAmerican Heritage comes round to more or less the same conclusion: “But this [restrictive] use of which with restrictive clauses is very common, even in edited prose.” The whole note is an excellent introduction to which/that and restrictive/nonrestrictive. Check it out.

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Location!

Location, location, location!

It’s not just about real estate. For writers it’s also about where you place the words, phrases, and clauses that make up your sentence.

English is wonderfully flexible in oh so many ways. Sentences don’t have to follow the same subject-verb-object pattern. The same word can change the meaning of a sentence depending on where it’s placed. Here’s a simple example, using “only”:

Only she would eat coffee ice cream for breakfast.

She would eat only coffee ice cream for breakfast.

She would eat coffee ice cream only for breakfast.

Phrases and clauses can mean different things depending on where they’re placed in a sentence. I do much of my copyediting for trade and university presses. The authors of the manuscripts I edit are a generally experienced, accomplished lot. They know what they’re doing. When a sentence brings me screeching to a halt, it’s often because a phrase or a clause either creates ambiguity or gives the wrong impression altogether. The phrase or clause itself is fine: it’s just in the wrong place.

typo

Recently I copyedited a biography whose author had a penchant for dropping short phrases in between subjects and their verbs. An example: “Smith, at times, tried to relax.”

Mind you, this isn’t wrong. Sometimes sticking a phrase between subject and verb yields exactly the shading and cadence you want. In general, though, proximity strengthens the connection between two parts of a sentence, and usually we want our subjects clearly and closely connected to their verbs. More to the point, this particular author was splitting up subjects and verbs so often that I suspected a literary tic — one of those habits writers get into without realizing it. So I made it “At times, Smith tried to relax.”

If you deal in dialogue or quoted material, where you place the attribution — whatever you’re using to identify the speaker — can make a big difference in how readers  read/hear the text. “He said,” “she said,” and all the rest function like punctuation. They can create a pause or emphasize a phrase or group a string of phrases together. Here’s a random example from my novel in progress. Matthew is a four-year-old being bratty in the back seat.

“That’s enough, Matthew,” said their mother, not turning around. Matthew looked surprised. “When we get home,” she promised, “I’ll put water in the play pool and you can play in it while I work in the garden.”

That last sentence could be arranged in several ways. “She promised” could come at the end, or after “play pool.” The “when” clause could come in the middle or at the end. For now I like it the way it is. (I beginning to suspect, however, that the mid-October weather is too chilly for the play pool and that Mom isn’t much of a gardener.)

Here’s a nonfiction example, adapted from the biography mentioned above:

“The big issue of the campaign,” stated Williams, “will be security.”

Coming upon this sentence, my immediate reaction was that putting the attribution in the middle weakened the connection between the subject and the object — when “big issue = security” is the whole point of the statement. So I moved it to the beginning:

Stated Williams, “The big issue of the campaign will be security.”

Again, the original isn’t wrong, but the edited version is stronger. (The author liked it better too.)

The lovely flexibility of English makes it possible to construct sentences that are perfectly grammatical but that either don’t say what the writer meant to say or make it unclear what the writer did mean to say. Here’s an example. The author is writing about the New Deal.

The Republican resurgence in the elections of 1938 and 1942 spawned a congressional counterattack against FDR’s domestic agenda which saw such agencies as the National Youth Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps vanish amidst the exigencies of war.

Huh? thought I. FDR’s domestic agenda killed the NYA and CCC? On second reading, I realized that no, it was the congressional counterattack that helped do the agencies in. The “exigencies of war” evidently had something to do with it, but “amidst” was vague about what. And was the congressional counterattack just sitting on the sidelines watching all this happen?

As a writer, I know that ambiguity can be intentional, but in a history book it’s generally not a plus. I didn’t see a way to move the “which” clause closer to “counterattack” without making a big snarly mess, so I broke the sentence in two:

The Republican resurgence in the elections of 1938 and 1942 spawned a congressional counterattack against FDR’s domestic agenda. That, along with the exigencies of war, caused the demise of such agencies as the National Youth Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps.

Because the original was somewhat ambiguous and because my edit made the cause-and-effect relationship more explicit, I flagged it with a query to the author: “OK?” It was.

mistake

Finally, here’s an instance where a very capable writer didn’t realize that the words weren’t saying quite what he meant to say. The question was whether Jones (not his real name) was “the right man for the job in China, which required more diplomatic finesse and fewer prejudices than he was capable of.”

Jones was fairly riddled with prejudices, and being capable of more wouldn’t have made him the right man for the job. The writer knew that; the problem was the word order. The fix was easy: I swapped “diplomatic finesse” and “fewer prejudices” and voilà, the question now was whether Jones was “the right man for the job in China, which required fewer prejudices and more diplomatic finesse than he was capable of.”