We all know what a prescriptivist rant sounds like: after all, there’s a lot of them about. A descriptivist rant is a much rarer thing: after all, descriptivist linguistics is a flexible, observational and forgiving discipline. But they do exist, and some of the best I’ve ever read have been by Geoffrey Pullum, professor of general linguistics at Edinburgh University and one of Language Log’s greatest eminences.
The subject of several of his rants has been that old favourite, the distinction between “which” and “that” – specifically the idea that “which” must introduce non-restrictive clauses, set off with commas, that are parenthetical to the sentence, and that “that” must introduce restrictive clauses, without commas, that define (or “restrict”) the item that has just been mentioned.
It’s often taught as a rule of English grammar, but it isn’t: it was a suggestion advocated by HW Fowler (in fact, he called it a “plea”) to clarify a part of English where genuine ambiguity can occur.* It caught on and became widely taught, especially in the US. But Professor Pullum, who very much believes in letting language flow free of artificial restrictions, is less than impressed with the intellectual landscape that has resulted:
“Grammar snobs trying to show off their linguistic rectitude by playing gotcha with an invented rule that never matched educated usage; copy editors slaving away trying to enforce it; Microsoft Word blindly putting wavy green underlining under every relative which not preceded by a comma. What a senseless waste of time and energy.
Follow the Fowler rule if you want to; it’s up to you. But don’t tell me that it’s crucial or that the best writers respect it. It’s a time-wasting early-20th-century fetish, a bogeyman rule undeserving of the attention of intelligent grownups.”
Linguists who are able to take a calmer view of the matter than the professor (who also wrote another post on a similar subject entitled “More Timewasting Garbage, Another Copy-editing Moron“) explain that, in fact, it is the presence or absence of the commas that makes the crucial difference. You can use “which” for a restrictive clause without making it non-restrictive, as long as you avoid commas.
The always sensible Stan Carey offers a good example on his blog: “The bike which I keep in the garage is ideal for short trips” means something different from “The bike, which I keep in the garage, is ideal for short trips”. In the first case, there may be more than one bike under discussion; in the second, there is clearly only one. As Mr Carey says:
“I don’t think it’s useful or beneficial to outlaw which from restrictive clauses, and I like having a choice of relative pronouns. Let punctuation do the work of clarifying. Used with skill, it does it well.”
There’s no doubt that the linguists’ case is a convincing one – not least because of the large corpus of English that precedes and contradicts Fowler’s efforts to introduce the distinction. But nonetheless, his idea has spread. And not just to the subs’ desk, or even Microsoft’s grammar checker, but even further – to the state capitol.
The legislative drafting manuals of several US states – that is, the official guides for those who write laws for legislators to pass – reveal an adherence to Fowler’s idea so slavish and definite that it makes you fear for Professor Pullum’s blood pressure. For example, The State of Wisconsin’s Bill Drafting Manual makes Fowler’s “plea” a straightforward rule for its drafters:
Colorado’s guide concurs, additionally exhorting its drafters to use which and that “correctly”:
But Massachusetts’s guide is much balder: “which” and “that” alone, it suggests, do the work of distinguishing a non-restrictive from a restrictive clause. Commas are not even mentioned:
And Texas goes as far as to indicate that commas, far from being the critical feature in defining the clause, are more or less an afterthought:
“As a rule of thumb.” Ouch.
Fowler’s suggestion may not be strictly necessary for comprehension, but if you follow it the way he drew it up, it won’t get you into any trouble. However, if you don’t grasp the rule fully – and, on the face of it, Texas and Massachusetts don’t – it might be a different matter. By ignoring or downplaying the role of commas, it’s at least theoretically possible that a “which” clause somewhere in the statute book that was intended to be non-restrictive has become restrictive, and changed the meaning of a section in a bill or an Act.
Not very likely, perhaps, and you’d need three spare weeks and a Westlaw account to look for it. But it makes you wonder.
*Ambiguity, for example, like this.