Today, I’m going to blog about the word “which”.
Earlier, on Twitter, I shouted at the world for using “which” when it means “that”. A few minutes ago, someone replied saying I was being “petty, anal and simply wrong”. He linked to a series of pages that tracked the use of the words in various acclaimed pieces of literature, with the conclusion that the best writers use them almost interchangably, and therefore they must be interchangable. It is a plainly flawed conclusion to draw.
What I’m talking about is an awkward phenomenon where people write something like “the book which was written like this was perfectly fine.” Which, to me, would be perfectly fine if it read “the book, which was written like this, was perfectly fine.” But when I read that first sentence, I’m actually stumbling, then eventually processing it as: “the book that was written like this was perfectly fine.”
In other words, I’m reading that it is a book that was specifically written like this was perfectly fine, not a book that just so happened to be written like this was perfectly fine. The first specifies the type of book that was fine. The second is just saying the book was fine, and adding some additional information.
If “which” appears in that place, without the commas denoting it as a relative clause, then it is ambiguous to me, because I have always been taught (by AP style guidelines and various other editorial standards I write to, as well as, y’know, schoolteachers and that) of this difference between the two.
In no way am I saying it’s ungrammatical. Of couse it isn’t ungrammatical. Punctuation and word usage in this way is all just prescriptive rules anyway, trying to ape spoken language in a way that works best. In no way am I saying the best writers don’t do it. Writers far, far, far more accomplished than myself do it all the time. It doesn’t make them poor writers.
But it does mean that, for that split-second, I’m snapped out of the magic they’re weaving with their words, while I process what exactly it is they’re trying to communicate to me.
The pages my Twitter friend linked to belong to Mark Liberman, a linguist who seems to be doing his absolute best to track down various pieces of prescriptive grammar rules and somehow disprove them. Which is just bizarre, to me. All of the rules are somewhat arbitrary. No one is saying it is wrong to say “which” when you mean “that”. As in, it is not ungrammatical to do so. If it were ungrammatical, I wouldn’t just stumble when I read it, I would literally not be able to understand it. That is how grammar works. We understand things because we are born with an ability to form general rules of grammar subconsciously in our heads, then apply them to the language we grow up learning. (There are various other theories, but this is the only one that makes sense to me.)
No, we’re not talking about whether or not something is grammatical here. What I’m saying is that it is best practice when writing in Standard English, or something similar to it, to observe various prescribed rules, because they are the ones we have grown up learning, and the ones that help us to process things most effectively.
It is best practice because it is the least ambiguous. As a journalist, I have always been trained to be concise and efficient with words. This, surely, applies to structure as well. It is all about communicating a message in the way that flows the best.
That‘s why it grates when I see “which” instead of “that”, or “which” introducing a relative clause without commas. Because it makes me pause, if only for a split-second, and try to work out what the writer is trying to say. So much is encoded in that tiny little choice of how to phrase the sentence. To phrase things in anything other than the least ambiguous way makes no sense to me.
Man. That was a rant.
Thing is, I’d hate for anyone to think I’m the sort of person who goes around picking people up on spelling errors and so forth. I’m really not. It absolutely enrages me when people talk about “proper English”, as if all regional dialects are somehow inexplicably inferior. Or that Standard English isn’t just a dialect itself. It partly enrages me because I fear people think of me as this horrible, anal, petty nightmare of a person, one who continually attempts to bring the best writers down by criticising the choices they make with language. That is totally not the person I am, nor do I want to be. It also enrages be because it feels like people think a degree in linguistics was obviously lost on me, and that I’ve ignored the core principles of the field – ie. there is no “wrong”, there is only “variation”. This is not the case either.
But when we write formally, we are adopting one of those specific variations. In England, I’m adopting something close to Standard Written English, and I am expecting that those reading what I write will be expecting to read something close to Standard Written English.
So when I write “that” instead of “which”, I’m not just doing it blindly because someone told me to. I’m doing it as both a stylistic choice, and because it is the least ambiguous way of wording the sentence.
I’m rambling now, so I’ll wrap up.
Conclusion: you’re all wrong, I’m awesome, go away.