Which or That? Who Cares?

If you’re a speaker/writer of American English (AmE), these two relative pronouns may well strike terror into your heart. Which one to use? How to keep them straight in your head?

If you’re a speaker/writer of British English (BrE), you probably wonder what I’m on about in that first paragraph. (That is, unless you’re also versed in the quirks of AmE usage.)

In AmE, “which” is nonrestrictive. That means a clause that begins with “which” does not restrict the noun to which it refers. “Hand me the red cloak, which is behind the door.” In AmE this implies that there’s only one red cloak, and it happens to be behind the door. There could be other cloaks, but they’re not red (and presumably they’re not behind the door, either). Used in this way, “which” is always preceded by a comma. (That’s a rule. Not a guideline or a preference. A rule. Just do it.) The comma is a clue to the nonrestrictive nature of the clause. You don’t NEED that clause to make sense of the statement. It’s extra information. You’re being nice in providing it (oh, by the way, the thing I want is behind the door).

In AmE, “that” is restrictive. I’ll let you ponder that for a moment. ::waits:: “Hand me the red cloak that is behind the door.” The implication here is that there are several (perhaps even many) red cloaks, but you want the one that is behind the door (not the one that’s on the bed, or the one hanging in the closet). “That” restricts the noun to only one specific item in its class. Used in this way, “that” is NOT preceded by a comma. (See above parenthetical. Same deal here. Just do it.) You NEED that clause to make sense of the statement. It’s not extra information. It’s vital. (Give me the thing that’s behind the door. Not that other thing that’s somewhere else.)

It works the same way with plurals, by the way. “Ford has issued a recall of all Focuses built before 2008 that have ABS.” There are many more Focuses, total, but only those built before 2008 AND having ABS systems are affected. The noun is restricted to a subset of the class. (Please don’t bother telling me if there’s no such thing as a Focus built before ’08 with ABS. It doesn’t matter, factually speaking. It only matters as an example of restrictive pronoun usage.)

Garner’s Modern American Usage tells us that the use of “which” in AmE as a restrictive pronoun has reached Stage 4 (nearly a lost cause, sad to say).

British English observes a far less restrictive (heh) differentiation: “Which” and “that” may both be used in restrictive clauses. However, nonrestrictive usage demands “which,” the same as in AmE. If you require chapter and verse, I refer you to the New Oxford Style Manual (2012), 4.3.1, page 68, on the restrictive and nonrestrictive uses of the comma. (The pronouns are almost secondary to the section, which amuses me because I’m perverse that way.) I have yet to see a “that” appear where a “which” should be; I’m growing more used to seeing them used interchangeably (and properly so, per BrE rules) in the restrictive sense.

As an editor who works with writers from both sides of the pond (as they say), I’m used to seeing both the AmE and the BrE usages. My problem is remembering who I’m editing, and acting accordingly. If I’m editing a BrE writer, I leave whiches and thats alone. If I’m editing an AmE writer, I ask them what they prefer. Most of the time, they’ll tell me that they can never remember how it’s supposed to go and would I please make the corrections so they sound like they know what they’re doing.

I gladly do so. Readers will never know.

Let’s chew some GUM.

Grammar, Usage, and Mechanics. And we’ll throw in Syntax and Style for good measure. And no, those won’t be capped for the entire post. That’d be silly. First use is plenty, because now you readers know what the Important Terms are going to be for the rest of this discussion. (That’s a style thing. You’ll learn more about it later.)

We can’t write or speak—we can’t use language—without at least four of those things. Grammar tells us the rules that explain how our words work. It tells us about nouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives, pronouns, prepositions, and more. It tells us what we need for a complete sentence (a subject and a verb). It tells us how to form a question. Grammar is a set of rules. Not suggestions, not guidelines. Rules. And you know what? Most of us learn these rules by osmosis. We absorb them from hearing other people talk; we are exposed to them when we read. (Sadly, we may read poorly-written material and learn the wrong things, but that’s another post for another time.)

Usage is just what it sounds like. How are words used in language? Sometimes we use one word when we’re writing and another when we’re speaking. That’s usage. I’ll quote Bryan A. Garner’s introduction to the “Word Usage” section of the Chicago Manual of Style, 16th ed.: “The great mass of linguistic issues that writers and editors wrestle with don’t really concern grammar at all—they concern usage: the collective habits of a language’s native speakers.” Which word do we use in a given situation: less or fewer? What are the nuanced differences between convince and persuade? Do we say “a myriad of” or “myriad?” (See that question mark? Its use is mechanics, but its placement is a question of style.)

Mechanics is an inclusive term for punctuation and spelling. Calling a run-on sentence a “grammatical error” is incorrect. It’s a mechanical (specifically punctuation) error. Here’s an example of one, I’ll just use a comma there instead of a period or a semicolon. That’s two complete thoughts, two independent clauses (that’s a technical term), with only a comma between them. The rules of mechanics tell us that it’s wrong. Mechanics are also covered to a point by style (as I pointed out in the previous paragraph). More about that later, too.

I don’t think I need to explain spelling.

Syntax tells us how we put words together and make phrases, clauses, and sentences. It’s different from grammar in that it describes how the words work together, but it works with grammar to allow us to speak and write. Without one, we can’t have the other. You may hear them spoken of together: grammar and syntax. Both are part of linguistics, which is the study of human speech. Syntax is why “the lazy dog caught the cat” means something different from “the cat caught the lazy dog.” (The latter makes better sense, don’t you agree?) Syntax is also why it sounds strange to us to say “the red big barn.” Native English speakers tend to put the more general descriptor first (“big”) and the more specific ones after (“red,” and perhaps “wooden” for good measure).

Then we come to style. Style guides contain guidelines (that’s why they’re guides and not rulebooks) for how the words look on the page, whether it’s an actual printed page in a bound book or a page on a website. They’re for written English, not spoken. Calling a style difference a “grammatical error” is an error itself. We don’t need to worry about style most of the time. Many writers have no clue about style guides; they don’t need to. Their editors need to, though. Of the five terms I’m covering, this one is perhaps the least important—and also the most contentious.

Perhaps the most familiar style point is the serial, or Oxford, comma. At least one satire site has published a faux news story about casualties caused during a battle over it between Chicago and AP style users. It’s the difference between the presence of a comma before the last item in a series (Chicago, APA, and MLA all use this) and the lack of a comma in that position (AP). Here’s an example: red, white, and blue flags OR red, white and blue flags. Here’s another: eggs, toast, and juice for breakfast OR eggs, toast and juice for breakfast.

Style also governs things like capitalization of terms, use of abbreviations and the styling of those abbreviations, and hyphenation guidelines. Guidelines. Not rules. Other style issues are margins, line spacing, use of italics and boldface, and index/reference list conventions. I’m not even trying to provide an all-inclusive list. Get yourself a style guide (AP for news style, APA for science, MLA for academic, Chicago for most everything else) and poke at it. Better yet, save a bunch of money. Get a copy of June Casagrande’s The best punctuation book, period. Why do I say this? Because most of what’s different from style to style is the punctuation, and punctuation is one of those triggers for people. This book covers the four major guides in a very accessible format.

The Chicago Manual of Style contains a chapter on grammar and usage as a reference for users of that style. The rules don’t change from style guide to style guide; they’re rules. However, Chicago has a section on grammar for users to ensure they understand things like how to use prepositions in parallel structure. It also contains a section covering common “problem words.” (I told you these things all work together, didn’t I?)

That’s a lot of information covered by the single heading of style. I say it’s perhaps the least important of the five, though, because our understanding of the words, whether spoken or written, is less affected by style considerations than by any of the other four points. If our grammar is poor, people will have trouble understanding us. If our spelling is poor, people will have trouble reading our words. If our punctuation is poor, the meaning of our sentences might not be what we intended. If our usage is poor, people may form a different opinion about us than if it were “standard” or “correct” (both contentious terms in themselves). If our syntax is poor, our message will almost certainly be garbled. (It’s rare to find truly poor syntax, thankfully. That’s because, much as with grammar, we tend to learn proper syntax by osmosis. We hear how words are put together to form phrases and clauses and sentences, and we copy what we hear.)

If our style is poor, though, the worst that’s probably going to happen is someone tagging our house with comma-laden graffiti.



NB: I purposely strove to keep this as general as possible, to touch on only major points and not fine ones. There are scads of books available that go into detail about grammar, usage, mechanics, syntax, and style. This is a blog post, not another book.

Fifty Shades of WTF?

I just wrote a fairly long post at G+ in which I dissect an article from People Magazine. In it, the grammar checker Grammarly takes E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey to task.

To no one’s surprise, I hope, it fails miserably. Mechanical checkers cannot possibly parse the nuances of writing, grammar, usage, mechanics, and style. The proof’s right in the article, linked from my post there.

And I’m linking to that post from here, because writing it once was enough.

Read and enjoy.

Go read my rant here, please. 

Kitty Pryde can be unphased.

I saw it again today: “phase” for “faze.” Let’s look at these words, folks. I know I can straighten you out.

If you want to tell me that something didn’t upset you, didn’t bother you, you’ll say “That didn’t faze me in the least.” FAZE. The word, an Americanism, dates to 1830 and can be traced to Kentish dialect, Old English, and Proto-Germanic. You can look it up for yourself at the Online Etymology Dictionary. Likewise, you can be “unfazed.” Whatever it was didn’t bother you. You’re unfazed. “Yeah, that truck nearly sideswiped me when I skidded on black ice, but I was in control. Didn’t faze me at all.” (You’re a bald-faced liar, but you’re using the correct word. I’ll let it slide. Heh.)

If you’re Kitty Pryde, you can be unphased—but the preferable term is “out of phase,” honestly. Ask Marvel Comics. They’ll set you right. PHASE. This word can be traced to both Latin and Greek. Again, don’t take my word for it. Look here for yourself. There’s phase as in “she’s going through a phase” and phase as in “we’ll phase this in over time.” Phase. A much newer meaning from science fiction and comics has to do with being out of sync, literally; that’s what happens with Kitty. She phases by dropping out of (or is it into?) sync with time and space. Are you a mutant like her? I didn’t think so. (You might be weird in your own wonderful way. I can’t say, as I don’t know you.)

I’m delighted to see that this error is only given a Stage 2 rating on Garner’s Language Change Index. It’s not too late to stop the trend. Just because “everyone says it” doesn’t make it right. And so far, we’re still a long way off from “everyone.” Frankly, the confusion fazes me every time.

Guidelines Are Not Rules (and Vice Versa)

Just a friendly reminder that in English, there are precious few rules and a metric ton (which is a tonne) of guidelines. Style guides do not agree. Dictionaries might not even agree. Grammar guides will agree on most things but not on everything.

What’s a rule?

“Start a new sentence with a capital letter and end it with terminal punctuation.”

That’s about as close to a rule as you’re going to get. And even here there are exceptions. If the sentence is in dialogue, it might NOT begin with a capital letter (it could be an interruption of the previous speaker’s words). The terminal punctuation might NOT be a period, a question mark, or an exclamation point, if the speaker’s drifting off into thought or being interrupted — then it might end with an em dash for an abrupt intrusion or with suspension points to signal the drifting.

No one HAS to follow the guidelines YOU like. And they’re not WRONG if they don’t. They’re making their own choices. They get to do that, and so do you.

Here’s another rule. “An independent clause contains a subject and a verb.” A complete thought contains a subject and a verb (or a noun phrase and a verb phrase, to use different terminology for the same thing). But what about “COME HERE!”? That’s a complete thought, and there’s no noun phrase in sight. That’s because the subject/noun phrase is understood to be “YOU.” “YOU COME HERE!” The subject is clear but it doesn’t appear in print.

If you’re new to this writing thing, do yourself a favor. LEARN THE RULES of grammar before you go breaking them. Having to relearn grammar SUCKS. Learning it and THEN choosing to break the rules? That can be a lot of fun.

I’m all for more fun  in 2015.

Quick Usage: Coach or carriage?

Generally speaking, a coach is closed and a carriage is open.

Think of a stagecoach. It’s closed. There are doors, and a seat up front for the driver. Or, think of a coach of state like the royals ride in from Buckingham Palace to Westminster or to Parliament. Closed.

Then, think about the carriages in Central Park,  NYC. They’re open, with a bench for the driver. No doors, no roof, nothing. Open.

The words aren’t readily interchangeable, regardless of the Wikipedia article about them.

Speak your peace? Or hold it?

Think about it for a moment. How can one speak one’s peace? Peace is quiet, isn’t it? If you’re speaking, you’re not quiet. And what you have to say might well disturb the peace. I can hold my peace at a wedding (“speak now, or forever hold one’s peace”) to maintain the decorum and not embarrass the bride or groom (or their parents, or their aunt Maisie, or the dog . . .).

I can speak my piece, though. Perhaps it’s a piece I’ve memorized, or perhaps it’s a piece that just comes to mind during a heated conversation. Usually when we say someone spoke their piece, they weren’t necessarily being kind. “I went to the board meeting last night and spoke my piece about their stupid plans.” A common variant of this is “say one’s piece.” The meaning’s the same. You speak. It’s anything but peaceful.

First, be awake.

Conscious: Awake; aware and knowing that something exists.

Conscientious: “Governed by or conforming to the dictates of conscience”; concerned with doing something correctly.

Before I can be conscientious about taking a specific action, I need to be conscious of the possibility. Here’s an example: Before I can be conscientious about recycling batteries, I need to know (be aware) that there are special rules in place for that. I can’t be concerned with following the rules until I know they exist.

First, I need to be conscious of the recycling statutes in my community.

Then, I need to be conscientious about adhering to those statutes.

“Feelin’ Alright”

If you’ve been following me on any platform for any length of time, you know I’ve been a staunch adversary of “alright.” I have stated as clearly as I know how that I would never reconsider that stance: “alright” would never become all right in my worldview.

You also know the saying “Never say never,” don’t you?

I’ll wait while you all recover and fetch smelling salts or whiskey or whatever you need to help you get through this. I understand entirely.

Rather than rewrite the book, so to speak, I’m providing a link to the article that changed my mind. As I tweeted earlier this morning, reading about the English language as it is actually spoken and used (descriptive grammar and linguistics, mostly) can lead to changing opinions. And I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, at all.

My last blog post here was about how I’ve mellowed. Even I never expected to mellow this much. I’m rather curious to see where I’ll go from here. Now I have one more item for my “ask the author” list, when I start a project with a new client. Added to the usual “Do you like serial commas?” and “UK or US conventions, for the most part?” will be “Do you care about ‘alright’ and ‘all right’?”

Clarification (October 13, 2014): I am still opposed to “alright” in narrative text. This sea change is purely for dialogue, and only if it’s appropriate for the setting and the character. A 16th-century nobleman will not say “all right.” He may well say “very well” or “excellent,” though. (A 16th-century peasant won’t say “all right,” either. Perhaps just “right” works for him. “All right” is a very American phrase (not that the English don’t use it, but it smacks of American speech–“Right” sounds more English to the non-academic ear), “attested to from 1953″ according to Online Etymology (http://etymonline..com).

And if they say they like “alright,” that will be all right with me.

There’s right, and there’s right.

This is a post about grammar, and about pedantry, and about editing, and about other stuff as I think of it and can make it fit into the general theme. That general theme is: How My Outlook Has Changed With Experience and Time.

Once I’d have been proud to be labeled a pedant. A grammar nazi. A Miss Thistlebottom. I couldn’t imagine not knowing when to use “who” and when it should be “whom.” My verbs were always properly conjugated and spelled, and the tense always fit the time. Those who confused direct and indirect objects crawled to me over broken glass for my aid.

Well, okay, not really. But close. Most of my classmates from junior high (now it’s “middle school,” you know) on came to me for help with grammar and spelling. I just knew that stuff. It was easy for me.

It still is easy for me. My verbs are still properly conjugated and spelled, and I still know how to use the proper tense. I have very little trouble with spelling (even with unfamiliar words), and I can identify compound-complex sentences without breaking a sweat.

Over the years, though, I’ve come to a much softer outlook. Yes, I still correct errors when I’m asked or when I’m being paid to, and perhaps even as a good-natured gibe (with a G, not a J) if I know the person very well. What I do not do, and in fact have never done, is leap into conversations with red pen in hand, lashing about correcting all the misspellings and grammar errors and nonstandard usages. It’s RUDE. I’ve always felt that way, and I still do.

If the only thing I can contribute to an online conversation is “You mean GIBE, not JIBE,” I should shut up and walk away. NO ONE CARES. Seriously. No one.

No one, that is, save for the rude people who gain some degree of self-importance and ego-boo by pointing out other people’s shortcomings.

And honestly, even when I’m being paid to fix things there are degrees of “correct” I need to think about. What’s “correct” for an academic paper is not the same as what’s “correct” for a novel is not the same as what’s “correct” for a blog post. To those who say “My job is to make it right ALL THE TIME” I have to ask: By whose standards? Did you check Fowler? Strunk and White? Garner? Chicago? AP? APA? Your high-school English teacher’s notes you’ve saved in a lock-box? By whose standards is this “right?”

My job is to make every project “right” for THAT project, for THAT audience, for THAT purpose. I think about the readers, the story (if it’s fiction), the message, the format. Does the language fit the story? Will the readers think it’s over-written or under-written? Does the usage need to be conservative? What about the vocabulary? If there’s dialogue, does it sound real? Do people talk that way in this situation in real life? (And if it’s totally fiction–fantasy, let’s say, with dragons and elves–would they really say these things if it were real?) And what about the narrative? Is it dwelling on details that don’t matter, or is it always moving the story ahead? For that matter, is the dialogue serving a purpose other than to ensure people talk? Are tags overused? Are there beats instead of tags where they make better sense?

If it’s an academic paper, are the citations properly placed and formatted? Is the language suitable, or too colloquial? Are special terms appropriately defined (either in-line or in back matter)? Is the material organized to best effect?

I walk away from online conversations much more readily than I once did, even those about editing. There are as many kinds of editing as there are editors, the way I see it. We can’t even agree on the definitions, people. How can we agree on method? I say that I perform substantive line and copy editing. For me, that means I stop short of moving entire chunks of text around (unless it’s a short-ish nonfiction piece), but I commonly rewrite sentences and rearrange them within paragraphs; I change word choice (or at least make suggestions for such changes) to better fit the mood, the speaker, the purpose, and so on; I note inconsistencies from one place to another (his name was Dan in the last chapter, but here he’s Dave); and I check the grammar, usage, and mechanics.

I love editing. I absolutely love it. But I won’t shove it down the throat of anyone who hasn’t asked me for my input. And I edit a novel with a different set of standards than I use for a white paper. And I write a blog post with a different set from either of those. And if I’m commenting somewhere on social media, I might not catch my typos. Y’know what? That’s okay. It’s social media. We all have fat fingers sometimes.

I don’t mind adverbs when used judiciously. (Like that one.)

I don’t run away from semicolons; in fact, I rather like them, if they’re used properly.

I prefer the Oxford comma, but I won’t throttle, maim, or otherwise harm someone who doesn’t care for it.

I have no aversion to splitting infinitives, but I don’t go out of my way to split them, either.

And I start sentences with coordinating conjunctions, too. (Not in a white/academic paper, though. That’s frowned upon in such a circumstance. Let the writing/editing fit the purpose.)

I use the right tools for the right jobs. Not a hammer for everything. Not everything is a nail.