Annals of non-restrictive ‘that’

You’ll seldom see that used with a comma to set off a non-restrictive clause. Normally which does this job. (Which is also fine in restrictive clauses, by the way, despite the pseudo-rule that forbids it. The first link explains the terminology.)

My earlier post on non-restrictive that gives an idea of how rare it is, and provides an ambiguous example from Penelope Fitzgerald; I later updated with more clearcut literary examples. This post notes a few more instances of non-restrictive that used in books I recently read and re-read, respectively.

In Everest: Impossible Victory, Peter Habeler writes:

The men struck their Camp VI at 8200 metres, that is well below the place at which Mallory and Irvine were last seen.

And Marshall McLuhan, in Understanding Media:

The rapid increase of traffic brought in the railway, that accommodated a more specialized form of wheel than the road.

The wheel, that began as extended feet, took a great evolutionary step into the movie theatre.

Habeler’s line is ambiguous: that could either be a relative pronoun (or perhaps a subordinator), used where we would expect to see which; or it could be a demonstrative, which means there’s a comma splice where we would expect a dash or full stop.

You could argue the same for the first McLuhan line, but you’d be on even shakier grounds, I think. My feeling is that these thats are non-restrictive relativizers. I’d be curious to know how you read them.


17 Responses to Annals of non-restrictive ‘that’

  1. I don’t know… they all seem to be kind of a “keep it in the flow of the writer’s voice” to me–an editor who just said “meh, it’s not wrong as I read it” kind of thing… If I were reading it in context, I probably would have had a slight hesitation but accepted it as a subsitute for which. Not knowing any better, that is…

  2. John Cowan says:

    I agree on the McLuhan examples. The Habeler example is questionable — I suspect it of being German translationese. In German, all relative clauses are set off with commas, and comma splices are considered correct. Did Habeler (who is Austrian) write the book in English, or is there a named translator to be blamed?

  3. Stan says:

    Shakirah: Thanks for your interpretation. There’s no question of them being wrong, to my mind – just ambiguous. And it’s a very unusual construction in edited writing.

    John: Good point. I forgot that it had been translated; the translator’s name is David Heald. Elsewhere, there’s what appears to be a non-restrictive which clause without a comma:

    We wanted in any case to go on up, even if we could only reach the south summit which is 8720 metres high.

  4. wisewebwoman says:

    I had more trouble with the mixed tenses of Habeler.

  5. Shaun Downey says:

    The Habeler quote jars a bit but it’s not the end of the world. If it gives a few Queen’s English Society johnnies a dose of the pernicious conniptions then perhaps it does not jar so badly!

    And that’s the first time pernicious and conniptions appear side by side on the intertubes!

  6. Stan says:

    WWW: That may be my fault rather than Habeler’s, for keeping the quote short. With more context, the switch in tense would probably stand out less.

    Shaun: It’s the ambiguity that gives one pause, I think. If I were editing it, I’d attend to it, but as a reader I just found it curious. Nice Googlewhack!

  7. Eugene says:

    I wonder about the historical syntax aspect of “that” as a demonstrative and subordinator. The examples given suggest a cline between 1st: probably a demonstrative; 2nd ambigous between demonstrative and subordinator; and 3rd clearly a relativizer. I suspect that this is how the relativizer evolved. If so, it wouldn’t be surprising to find overlapping in functions. Do any of you readers know the history on this?
    Not that a synchronic editors point of view isn’t valid. A period in place of the comma would work well in both of the first two examples.

  8. languagehat says:

    I think the Habeler quote could be read with “that is” equivalent to “i.e.,” but with the second comma missing (as often happens): “that is, well below the place at which Mallory and Irvine were last seen.” If I were editing it, I would query the author as to whether he meant that or whether “that” should be changed to “which.” In any event, it is clearly wrong as is.

  9. Stan says:

    Eugene: That’s a good question. I don’t know how the relativizer evolved, and it might shed light on this functional grey area.

    Hat: I hadn’t considered the i.e. possibility, but I don’t think it’s likely given the book’s style. If it’s doing the work of which, I wouldn’t call it wrong, but like you I would seek to clarify it if I were editing. The unambiguous literary instances from McLuhan and Enright, for example, suggest to me that it’s a rare variant.

  10. David L says:

    I’ve never read McLuhan, but the two examples you give make me think his command of English prose is a little iffy, and not just because of ‘that’ instead of ‘which.’ In the first sentence, saying that railways accommodate a more specialized form of wheel than roads seems back to front. I would say either that rail requires a more specialized form of wheel than roads, or that roads accommodate a greater variety of wheels than rail.

    And in the second example, the image of a wheel taking an evolutionary step, and into a movie theater, no less, just makes me chuckle.

  11. Steve says:

    Boswell’s Life of Johnson has lots of examples of non-restrictive that.

  12. Jerry Friedman says:

    Louise Gray, the environment reporter for the Telegraph, has this annoying habit.

    “The local council has sent out thousands of letters to residents asking them if they are willing to consider the the plan, that would see two train-loads of nuclear waste being transported into the area just one hour from London every week for up to 80 years.”

    “Weather Online, that gives more long range forecasts, said the Wimbledon tennis championships, running from June 25 to July 8, could also be wet.”

    People in alt.usage.english have commented that non-restrictive “that” is standard in British English now.

  13. alexmccrae1546 says:

    David L.,

    Respectfully, Marshall McLuhan’s wide-ranging philosophical musings once translated to the printed page are often couched in metaphor, and should not always be read so literally….. although I concede that your image of a wheel stepping into the movie theater example, if taken at face value, could be viewed as slightly amusing by some, I suppose.

    In this instance, I can see McLuhan perhaps viewing the perfectly rounded movie reel as a technological ‘step’ from the conventional vehicular wheel, where an automobile, or railway car would take the passenger to a particular, geographic destination; while movies, measured in running feet, as it were, magically take the viewer to destinations and worlds of the imagination that in years past could have only been dreamed of, or read about.

    As I see it, McLuhan possessed one of the greatest, most intellectually fertile, widely admired, visionary minds of the last century, and his command of ‘prose’, his polymath-like breadth of erudition in the humanities, the sciences (social and physical), philosophy, and popular culture was second-to-none, amongst his eminent scholarly peers.

    As a fellow Canadian, I have always felt a sense of pride in the fact that the Toronto-based McLuhan’s unique take on media and technology, for a time, had really captured the full attention, and critical scrutiny of major academics, and profound thinkers from around the globe. The prim-and-proper, bookish-looking prof who had invented the term “the global village” became almost an overnight pop-culture icon, even captured-in-print by the ultimate pop-artist of his era, Andy Warhol, as one of Andy’s litany of silkscreened celebrity portraits.

    Admittedly, many found his books, and essays rather dense, esoteric, and somewhat difficult to penetrate. But I believe he was merely far ahead of his time in appreciating how changing technologies, and the techie-dependent mass media continue to play such a determinative role in how we very social, inventive, sensate humans communicate, and function on the ever-shrinking global landscape.

    If only McLuhan were around today, in this age of Facebook, Twiiter and the ubiquitous Smart Phone. He’d surely have a thing- or-two to say.

    I would highly recommend that folks out there read McLuhan’s entire, “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man”. IMHO, taking him out of context*, merely quoting a few isolated sentences, does not capture the true genius and vision of the man.

    *I do concede that addressing the “that”/ “which” conundrum , w/ McLuhan’s words as an exemplification, was a worthy exercise, nonetheless.

  14. Stan says:

    David: Analysed out of context, the lines might seem strangely constructed. But McLuhan’s command of English was fine, though his style was freewheeling (like his ideas) and sometimes idiosyncractic – often, I imagine, deliberately so.

    Steve: Thank you for that information. I’m sorry to say I haven’t read it yet.

    Jerry: It doesn’t annoy me, though there are occasions when it generates ambiguity and might best be avoided. I don’t think it’s standard in BrE, despite a few high-profile users.

    Alex: I share your admiration of McLuhan. He was a perceptive, far-sighted and original thinker who would have relished the new electronic media landscape.

  15. Late to the party with a collateral issue. I see a lot of journalistic writing with non-restrictive “that,” minus commas. Here’s a current example: “A grandfather clock chimes in a corner of the front hall that has been wallpapered in large floral print.” I’m assuming that there is only one front hall in the house and that “that” should be “which.”

  16. Stan says:

    That’s another notable member of the family, John. The party didn’t feel complete without it – or you. I’d like to think the usage indicates variation, but it might just be confusion.

  17. […] Anne Enright, and Robert Arthur, later adding lines from Peter Habeler and Marshall McLuhan to the annals of non-restrictive that. So it’s out there, including in well-edited texts. But it can slip by unless you’re […]

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