That’s the law

29 Apr

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:

Picture 72

Utah does more or less the same thing:

Picture 2

Colorado’s guide concurs, additionally exhorting its drafters to use which and that “correctly”:

Screen shot 2013-04-26 at 09.30.50

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:

Picture 73

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:

Picture 1

“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.

17 Responses to “That’s the law”

  1. Jonathon Owen April 29, 2013 at 5:00 pm #

    That’s depressing. Not only do they ignore or barely mention the role of commas, but they ignore all the exceptions to the that/which rule, such as the fact that relative that can’t follow prepositions or the demonstrative that. Not to mention that it’s simply a stupid invented rule based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the two different systems of relativization in English.

    • edlatham April 29, 2013 at 6:00 pm #

      Jonathon: Yes, it demonstrates a disappointingly unsophisticated grasp of the arguments, doesn’t it? I quite like Fowler’s ‘rule’ as a workaday mental test for the accidental presence or absence of restriction – I know you disapprove of the whole concept heartily – but some states don’t even seem to understand Fowler on his own terms.

      • edlatham April 29, 2013 at 6:05 pm #

        And I misspelt your name! Shameful. Apologies. Now fixed

  2. Rich Greenhill April 29, 2013 at 5:48 pm #

    The may have been influenced by lawyers’ traditional antipathy towards punctuation.

    In the UK, acts of parliament did not generally use punctuation (other than periods) until 1850; and even until recent decades the idea persisted that any punctuation should be ignored when construing laws. Much subordinate legislation continued to be drafted without punctuation until around the mid 20th century. In many commercial contracts, where lawyers were reluctant to depart from precedents, commas remained notable by their absence until the last couple of decades.

    The dubious notion was that words should stand for themselves so that misplaced spots could not affect the meaning of a messy text. But, as the Victorian parliamentary draftsmen recognised, punctuation is a valuable aid to interpretation, not its enemy.

    • edlatham April 29, 2013 at 6:04 pm #

      Rich: that’s very interesting. I was a legal books editor before I became a sub and was aware of the lingering suspicion among many authors of punctuation, but never understood the historical reasons for it were so strong. In nearly every case they were, as you suggest, in mortal fear of accidentally making a clause non-restrictive.

  3. Jeff April 29, 2013 at 8:34 pm #

    Interesting piece and conclusion, but I don’t feel the Carey example works if you make the other choice – “The bike, that I keep in the garage, is ideal for short trips”. I may be totally conditioned to Fowler, but it just sounds odd rather than definitively non-restrictive. I wound’t feel happy using it myself. Isn’t it really a case of precedence – choose commas according to whether or not you want restriction, and then you *may* also have a which/that choice.

    • edlatham April 29, 2013 at 9:12 pm #

      Yes, I hate non-restrictive ‘that’ too, and never allow it anywhere near the paper. But I suppose it is clearly a parenthetical phrase – those paired commas have a lot of power. Perhaps it’s just as well it comes up so rarely…

  4. cheshire cat May 2, 2013 at 5:18 pm #

    Apart from wasting everyone’s time, another problem with this zombie rule is that its attempted enforcement creates a lot of irritating errors. I’ve seen so many examples of people who’ve incorrectly added a comma before a restrictive “which” (rather than change the “which” to “that”) that I could scream.

    • edlatham May 3, 2013 at 8:23 am #

      Yes, I’ll bet! Some of them American jurists, I wouldn’t be surprised. But I always feel a bit sorry for Fowler in these situations: he never claimed it was a rule – and pointed out exceptions to it himself – but many, many others have done so since.

  5. oliverlawrence July 2, 2013 at 3:00 pm #

    It doesn’t matter whether or not it’s a “rule”; the point is that it can be a helpful convention to readers. The most important person is not you, the author of the text, but the reader. Plenty of people expect “‘that’ without comma = restrictive; ‘which’ with comma = non-restrictive”. Does it bother you that much to help them out? Whether you’re trying to persuade, sell, inform or entertain, it helps to avoid putting little distractions and stumbling blocks in your readers’ path. They may judge you for it.

    • edlatham July 2, 2013 at 7:23 pm #

      I always do try to help them out by making the distinction when editing, but the that/which “rule” is much less clearly defined here in the UK than it is in the US, and is often lost on British readers. If I were working in the US, it would be more of a pressing issue, as you say, because of the idea’s wider currency.


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