Non-restrictive ‘that’, that can be ambiguous

December 15, 2013

Non-restrictive relative clauses, which are structured like the one you’re reading now, are usually set off by a comma followed by the relative pronoun which or who. Very occasionally that is used, and its rarity (and sometime ambiguity) sounds my Curious Grammar Klaxon.

A note on terminology: non-restrictive relative clauses are also called non-defining or supplementary relatives, distinct from restrictive, defining, or integrated relatives. (There’s more on this and associated “which-hunting” in my oversized that/which grammar post.)

A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar says non-restrictive that relatives are “extremely rare and really only marginally present in Standard English”. True enough, but I tend to come across at least a few a year. Here’s an oldish one in J. W. N. Sullivan’s 1927 book Beethoven:

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Belief systems, which erode clarity

June 11, 2013

I’ve written before about a comma(,) which muddles meaning, and a comma with restrictive which. The first was in a newspaper editorial, the second in a de Maupassant translation; both were inserted seemingly because of an unfortunate belief in the bogus rule about that and which.

Here, inevitably, is another example, this one in bell hooks’ book All About Love:

Ultimately, though, the authors remained wedded to belief systems, which suggest that there are basic inherent differences between women and men.

The appearance after belief systems of a comma followed by which induces a pause and primes the reader to expect a relative clause about the consequences of remaining wedded to belief systems in general. But that’s not what happens.

First, uninflected suggest implies that the antecedent (what which refers to) is plural, i.e., belief systems, not the (singular) fact that certain authors remain wedded to them. Then the rest of the line shows that the writer is talking about specific belief systems.

So the relative clause is restrictive – the type of belief systems referred to is semantically restricted. Adding a comma makes it non-restrictive, which makes no sense here. I had to reread the sentence to parse it properly, this time ignoring the misleading comma.

Maybe the writer used which rather than that to avoid repeating that (“belief systems that suggest that”), though of course the second that is optional. Or maybe she just preferred which there. Either relative pronoun would have been fine. Adding a comma was not.

Again I’m inclined to think the comma was added by an editor who remains wedded to a belief system* which misinforms them about the grammaticality of which in restrictive clauses in all varieties of English.

Further reading: a discussion among editors on the that/which pseudo-rule. Or see the links above for more detailed discussion.

*

* Note the complete lack of a comma here. Savour it.


I guess that’s why they call ‘thats’ the ‘whose’

March 20, 2013

Reading a review of the 1983 fantasy film Hundra (a feminist knockoff of Conan the Barbarian), I came across a pretty unusual word, albeit one that almost looks perfectly normal. Film historian Paul Mavis, at DVD Talk, says the film’s creators:

set about to make a spoofy fantasy adventure thats focus would be on a gorgeous, blonde, man-hating super-warrior who was subservient to no one.

Few readers would pause over that thats: its meaning is clear in context, and it draws little attention to itself, its ungrammaticality thoroughly overshadowed by the line’s sensational imagery. Who’d be distracted by the subtle asymmetry of English’s relative pronoun system when there are man-hating super-warriors striding about?

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Comma with restrictive ‘which’

January 5, 2013

In Guy de Maupassant’s short story ‘Le Horla’, which I read in The Mountain Inn and other stories (Penguin Classics, 1955; translated by H. N. P. Sloman), I came across a restrictive clause using which and set off by a comma:

I had an experience today yesterday, which has upset me considerably.

Lest there be any doubt: the context indicates it was the particular experience the narrator had that upset him, not the fact of his having any old experience. The normal approach in such cases is to forgo the comma and use either which or that: I had an experience today which has upset me considerably.

I wonder at what point – and from whose hand – the comma appeared. Was it meant simply to signal a slight pause, its grammatical ambiguity an accident of shifting styles? Or was it inserted needlessly by an editor schooled in the fake that/which rule? Either way, it bears comparison with this rogue comma in a recent Guardian editorial.


A comma, which muddles meaning

November 19, 2012

From a Guardian editorial of 14 November:

There is another lesson to the Petraeus affair. The former general fashioned for himself a role, which is much more significant than top generals have during wars. [screengrab]

Readers may briefly infer that what is “much more significant” is not a role but Petraeus’s fashioning a role for himself, or they may infer that top generals don’t normally have a role during wars. And then they’ll realise they’ve miscued because of a rogue comma.

The article should read “a role which [or that] is much more significant”. The clause led by which is restrictive, so there should be no comma before it.* Adding one makes the clause non-restrictive and obscures the antecedent – what the relative pronoun which refers to.

The ambiguity is quickly resolved, but it ought never to have arisen. Readers are being made to work unnecessarily for a straightforward point. Whether the comma came from the writer or from a sub-editor trained in the totally fake that/which rule, the sentence is unwittingly spoiled. Punctuation, instead of lending structure, has warped it.

The that/which rule is more typical of US style; elsewhere there is usually no problem with restrictive which. But the Guardian style guide includes the distinction, seemingly in the name of clarity and elegance. So the quotation above, though not a dire failing, is telling: it shows how communication is undermined through misguided deference to a bogus rule.

We can be grateful for the many other instances of restrictive which in the Guardian that have not suffered an intrusive comma. From today’s edition:

we don’t know what position we are going to have in a Europe which is much more tightly integrated as a result of the eurozone crisis.

Ostrovskaya was earlier cited as a critic of my book The Whisperers in the “controversy” which Ascherson mentions.

a picture published by the Sunday Sport which her lawyers described as a “fake up the skirt photo”.

All these phrases are fully grammatical and intelligible. They don’t need commas before which, nor do they need which changed to that.

If writers and editors are led to believe that a comma must precede relative pronoun which as a matter of correctness, some will adopt this erroneous edict and apply it incorrectly – a misstep apparent in the example up top, and in this Language Log post where Geoffrey Pullum calls the rule “a complete disaster”.

The that/which rule is a spurious invention that goes against the standard usage of centuries of good writing. It replaces judgement and grammatical awareness with uncertainty, anxiety, and mechanical behaviour. And the muddle is passed on to readers.

Update:

After a prompt on Twitter by @BoswellAffleck, the @guardianstyle account graciously conceded that I “may well be right”:

*

* My earlier post on the that/which rule explains the terminology and offers analysis, history, and commentary from usage authorities.


That elusive non-restrictive ‘that’

November 14, 2011

Last month, I wrote about the unfounded “rule” limiting which to non-restrictive clauses and that to restrictive clauses. I hoped to show that restrictive which is common, standard, and unobjectionable, and has been for centuries. I’ve been updating the post with subsequent commentary from editors and linguists.

Restrictive which is ubiquitous, but non-restrictive that is very rare. MWDEU has several citations, including Shakespeare (“Fleance his son, that keeps him company”) and Oliver Goldsmith (“Age, that lessens the enjoyment of life, increases our desire of living”). The same source says the construction is used mostly by poets.

On Language Log in 2005, Geoffrey Pullum posted the following data from the Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English (Note: integrated relative = restrictive; supplementary relative = non-restrictive).

The remarkable bottom-row figures will have caught your eye. Pullum describes finding a non-restrictive that as “like spotting the syntactic analog of an ivory-billed woodpecker”.

So you’ll understand why I felt a moment of excitement when I read what I thought was a genuine example in the wild: specifically, in The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald (chapter 34, “The Garden-House”):

Then as he dried himself he repeated, ‘Never does the heart sigh in vain, Justen,’ and she scarcely knew whether to be unhappy or not. In her mouth was something bitter, that tasted like the waters of death.

Reading it again, though, I decided it was more likely a restrictive clause, albeit one set off by an unusual comma. The comma supplies a pause, but it probably doesn’t mark a supplementary relative clause. That is, Fitzgerald’s line is equivalent to this:

In her mouth was something bitter that tasted like the waters of death. [restrictive]

and not this:

In her mouth was something bitter, which tasted like the waters of death. [non-restrictive]

What do you think?

Update:

My excitement has diminished as I’ve become more accustomed to seeing the construction. I recently read Anne Enright’s novel The Gathering, which has several instances of non-restrictive that. Here are two of them:

Ada bringing us for red lemonade into a pub, that had a black roof with huge letters of white written across it.

If Ada believed in anything she believed in this persistence, that other people might call the soul.

And another, this one from Obstinate Uncle Otis, a short story by Robert Arthur:

Maybe he thought he c’d ignore that lightning, like he ignores Willoughby’s barn across the road, or Marble Hill, that his cousin Seth lawed away from him so that now he won’t admit there is any such hill.

A recent post on Language Log has an example from a comic strip, while Alex Segal, in a comment, shares several examples of non-restrictive that and discusses their distribution and grammaticality.


That which is restrictive

October 18, 2011

This is quite a long post about a distinction some people make between that and which as relative pronouns — an oft-disputed point of English usage. Feel free to skip ahead if you’re familiar with the territory.

Restrictive clauses (aka defining or integrated relative clauses) provide information that’s essential to a sentence. Take this one:

The bike that I keep in the garage is ideal for short trips.

The underlined clause is integral to the sentence, for reasons context would normally make clear. For example, there may be an implication that I have access to other bikes, so the restrictive clause defines or restricts what bike I’m talking about.

Non-restrictive clauses (also non-defining or supplementary relative clauses) are bound less tightly to the sentence: they can be removed without changing its essential point. Thus:

The bike, which I keep in the garage, is ideal for short trips.

Here, there’s only one bike I could be referring to, and the information about where I keep it is supplementary, non-defining, dispensable.

In speech, non-restrictive clauses are intoned separately; in writing, this separation is marked by punctuation: normally commas, as above, sometimes dashes or parentheses.

There’s a good case for calling non-restrictive clauses supplementary relative clauses, and restrictive ones integrated relative clauses. But these terms are quite new, and in this post I use the more familiar names.

So far so uncontroversial. Then there are sentences like this:

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