A comma, which muddles meaning

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.


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.

34 Responses to A comma, which muddles meaning

  1. Thanks for pointing it out again. @guardianstyle just rather brusquely, or sometimes even rudely, refers me to the guide itself. There must be a simpler way of putting the “non-rule”. Maybe just that “that” is not used for non-restrictive relative clauses?

  2. Harry Lake (age 66, freelance translator since 1972) says:

    The rule as I learnt it is simple: ‘If you need to use a comma, don’t use “that”.’ Whether we were taught the reasoning behind this, I cannot remember, but the point is, it works every time.
    (And that comma is a curious one, don’t you agree?)
    (Interesting the spell-checker doesn’t like my ‘learnt’. Why is that?)

  3. richardsmyth says:

    An interesting read, Stan – thanks. I’ve always followed the “rule” myself, not out of obedience but because I couldn’t see much value in not doing so – but the point about restrictive relatives in Pullum’s LL post has made me feel faintly foolish on that score.

    I entirely agree with you about the unhelpfulness of a “rule” on the issue (even though, at the same time, I agree with the rule’s general gist). There are probably numerous reasons why people are so damagingly insecure about grammar, so it’s not fair to lay all the blame at the door of the rule-makers, but you’re right that the insistence on the existence of rules doesn’t help matters one bit.

  4. Olivia says:

    I’m with the Guardian on this one, Stan. Yes, the comma muddles the meaning in your example, but if the writer (or sub) had used the correct ‘that’ in the first place, the comma wouldn’t have altered the meaning (just still have been incorrect punctuation). The problem is the other way round: writers and editors need to be taught that if the relative pronoun can be preceded by a comma, then ‘which’ should be used – not just that sticking a comma in front of it makes it correct.

  5. gill francis says:

    Hi Stan, The Guardian Style Guide is often oddly prescriptive. In a post I wrote for Macmillan in July, I was talking about the useful preposition ‘ahead of’ and I referred to bloggers who complain about the use of ‘ahead of’ instead of ‘before’. For example, there’s a Guardian blog in which their Style Editor, David Marsh, posted a piece entitled “This craze for ‘ahead of’ has got to stop … before it’s too late” (March 2011). He claimed that ‘before’ is becoming “an endangered species” and that it’s time for it to “make a comeback”. The Style Guide itself, in its entry for ‘ahead of’, used to say ‘avoid’; later editions are a little less decisive but not much. Fortunately It seems the journalists take little notice – e.g. there was a headline a few months ago: ‘Abu Qatada arrested ahead of deportation attempt’. I think the same prescriptivism applies to the Guardian’s recognition of the spurious ‘which’/’that’ distinction you mention here; again the journalists ignore the guidelines and as a result they get it right (except of course in the case you mention).

  6. John Cowan says:

    Here are The Rules, for those who want rules:

    that, no comma, restrictive meaning
    that, comma, BZZZT
    which, no comma, restrictive meaning
    which, comma, non-restrictive (parenthetical) meaning

    Of course, this applies only to relative clauses, not to other uses of that and which. Who follows the same pattern as which, but some writers avoid that with persons.

    German keeps it simple: always use a comma, and it’s up to the reader to figure out whether the clause is restrictive or parenthetical. Ambiguity is in fact extremely rare. *sigh*

  7. Stan says:

    Edward: It was a piece on the Guardian’s language blog that prompted my earlier post. Worth noting that non-restrictive that is rare but not unheard of (I have further examples on file). It used to be more common.

    Harry: That formulation of the rule generally works, but it oversimplifies. I don’t know why your spell-checker doesn’t like learnt – unless it’s set to AmE, where the spelling is less common. Even then, censuring it is a bit harsh.

    Richard: Some writers observe the distinction, and of course they’re entitled to. I prefer to have the option: where that and which are interchangeable, each has a slightly different feel. Many parties who recommend or insist on the “rule” (e.g., E. B. White, Jacques Barzun, the Guardian) break it naturally. And people who don’t know what they’re doing make a mess by trying to apply it. Commas suffice; the word-based rule, as I see it, is a dud.

    Olivia: But the writer or editor shouldn’t feel obliged to change the word: which is fully correct in that context, and it has been for centuries. It’s the more recent encroachment of an unfounded rule that has spread confusion and error.

    Gill: I suppose it’s a style guide’s duty to be reasonably prescriptive for the sake of consistency and convenience. But Guardian Style does take against certain words and usages it finds old-fashioned (e.g., whilst) or voguish, such as your ahead of example – and to suggest that before is endangered is hyperbolic. For a similar case, see my post on the fuss over ongoing.

    John: Was that the Ungrammatical Buzzer you pressed for that + comma? I wouldn’t, though if I were editing I would question its use and mention its rarity. And it does tend towards ambiguity.

    • Harry Lake (age 66, freelance translator since 1972) says:

      I’ve learnt something new (by the way, as far as I know the spelling checker comes either with this page or with my browser), for which I must thank Gill. It had never occurred to me that ‘ahead of’ meant simply ‘before’. I had always assumed that it meant something more like what Collins tells me is a Stock Exchange sense, namely ‘in anticipation of’. In other words, rather more than ‘before’. How disappointing.

      • gill francis says:

        Harry: You are right: ‘ahead of’ does mean a bit more than ‘before’, I think. There is usually a causal link: both ‘prior to’ and ‘because of’, or ‘in preparation for’. As a preposition ‘ahead of’ has carved out a little area of meaning all of its own, and is used mainly in news reports, particularly sports reports. I’ve also noticed that in the British National Corpus there are thousands of lines with the ‘Stock Exchange’ meaning you mention; in fact that may have well been the route it took to its more general distribution. I just have a problem with the prescriptivist complaints that ‘ahead of’ is somehow encroaching on the territory of ‘before’ – DM sees it as an invader, a threat of some kind. There’s plenty of room for both words, and if writers feel that ‘ahead of’ works better, they’ll use it.

    • gill francis says:

      Stan: Style Guides do have a role to play of course, and everyone wants to write clearly and correctly. It’s just that some style advisers are still fighting causes that are well and truly lost: ‘ongoing’ as you say is one; another is the use of ‘like’ for ‘as if’; another is the blurring of the deny/refute distinction. There are lots of changes that I don’t much like, but they’ve happened. Btw I hadn’t even realized that ‘whilst’ is the cause of any controversy.

      • Stan says:

        ‘some style advisers are still fighting causes that are well and truly lost’

        That’s very true, Gill. Style guides are understandably conservative by default, but I’m sometimes surprised by just how guarded they are. A good example is the Economist‘s policy on split infinitives – a quintessential zombie rule sustained by superstition and an unfortunate reluctance to upset the superstitious.

        I think I’ll write about whilst.

        • gill francis says:

          Yes, do. I think I use it in preference to ‘while’ – I like its sound and its hiss. In concessive clauses it seems somehow clearer. I wonder what the distribution of while/whilst is across the two main meanings; I could make a guess but I wouldn’t dare – very often corpus evidence confounds expectations.

  8. It’s so stimulating to read comments by people who really know about and understand language, as opposed to some discussion groups about editing, where the level of knowledge and awareness is dispiritingly low.

    On the ‘that/which’ distinction, I wonder what role Microsoft Word’s grammar checker has in enforcing the zombie rule; if you put ‘which’ not preceded by a comma, it flags it as a mistake, as I’m sure you know.

    People, though, like simple rules, which is why the ‘that/which’ rule is trotted out. I was once told categorically by someone who actually runs writing courses that ‘which’ to introduce a defining clause was always wrong. It was obvious there was no point in arguing: it was like a theological tenet to her.

    I would point out, however, that the restrictive/non-restrictive distinction is lost on 99% of people. It’s only editors and language aficionados – and, probably, learners of English – who understand the difference.

    I’ve given a writing class to highly qualified consultants, all graduates, and shown them sentences such as:

    My uncle who lives in Brazil is coming for Xmas.
    My uncle, who lives in Brazil, is coming for Xmas.

    Not one of them thought there was any difference. (Of course, the example may not have been the best, but it’s extremely hard to explain the difference.) In any case, many people have only the haziest notion of how and when to use commas in the first place. The comma splice is rife in business writing.

    On the ‘ahead of’ question, though its overuse irritates the hell out of me – for no rational reason – it is not a synonym of ‘before’, as Gill points out. It is richer in meaning than ‘before’, as G suggested, being a combination, I’d suggest, of ‘in preparation for’ and even ‘with an eye on/with a view to’, and other phrases in that area of meaning.

    Because I edit usage guides, I’m very aware of the paradox of pointing out that some people object to certain things, while objectively describing how language changes. Cobuild dictionaries had a neat formulation for this, something along the lines of ‘some people think this is wrong’.

    Looking forward to following more discussions.

    • Harry Lake (age 66, freelance translator since 1972) says:

      My uncle who lives in Brazil is coming for Xmas.
      My uncle, who lives in Brazil, is coming for Xmas.

      Hoho… I was teaching this to my students at the Leverkusen Berlitz school in 1964 (in what would now be called my gap year), though my sentence began with ‘My brother who lives in Bristol’. Can’t remember how it ended (but it certainly didn’t end with ‘Xmas’, which I still can’t bring myself to write even over four decades since realizing I had long lost my Christian belief). (Pardon me for this digression.) John Cowan has pointed out that ‘German keeps it simple: always use a comma, and it’s up to the reader to figure out whether the clause is restrictive or parenthetical. Ambiguity is in fact extremely rare.’ I don’t remember my students having any difficulty with the distinction in English.

    • gill francis says:

      Jeremy: About your ‘uncle’ example: I think you are right in saying it’s not a good example, and I wondered why. I guess it’s because in pairs of exas juxtaposed in order to point a contrast, all info is by definition ‘new’ info. For the ‘who’ clause in the first sentence to be interpreted as defining or restrictive, the audience would need to know that the shadowy ‘speaker’ has more than one uncle and needs to clarify which one is meant. Otherwise the possessive ‘my’ has done the defining job, and the ‘who’ clause sounds like parenthetical info, commas or not – the distinction is blurred. Or something like that. But trying to analyse invented examples is where madness lies!

      • Harry Lake (age 66, freelance translator since 1972) says:

        To me it’s the other way round: the very absence of commas in the first sentence signals that the speaker has at least one other uncle. I agree it’s a bit of a vague area though, not to say abstruse. In particular, the sentence with the commas does not necessarily mean the speaker has only one uncle.

      • Hi Gill,

        Yes, it’s a naff example, but actually it’s terribly hard to find any examples which illustrate the difference. And of course with authentic examples you are not going to get pairs like this.

    • Eugene says:

      There probably are better minimal pairs for the restrictive/non-restrictive clauses. Still, I’m really surprised that your students couldn’t hear the difference (pauses) even though they couldn’t see the difference (commas).

  9. Stan says:

    Jeremy: Thanks very much for your kind comments. Microsoft Word’s influence has probably been significant, and I suspect it was informed in turn by the dubious advice in Strunk & White. You’re right that people generally prefer simple rules; this is something I touch on quite often here. Such rules are well and good, up to a point, but they tend to harden into creeds that allow for no exceptions, complexities, or subtleties.

    Your report on the writing class you gave is interesting, and a bit dispiriting. I’d have thought graduates’ understanding of the restrictive/non-restrictive distinction would be greater than you suggest, if we allow for that understanding to be intuitive if not technical. But maybe it isn’t.

    As an editor I’d be wary of allowing a comma splice in business writing, unless it was intentional and served a clear communicative purpose, but the construction is common in fiction and even some literary non-fiction. You might enjoy browsing the examples I’ve collected in my post on comma splices.

  10. gelolopez says:

    Reblogged this on Demented Musings and commented:
    Comma is a definitely confusing punctuation. I use them spuriously and occasionally indiscriminately.

  11. Mise says:

    Dear Stan,

    I fully applaud that, which is conveyed here.

    I also fully applaud that which is conveyed here.

    Your friend,

  12. Stan says:

    Superb, Mise. I’m applauding back.

  13. Sharon says:

    Hi Stan, I remember being ridiculed by a boss years ago when I was working in Australia for not being aware of the that/which rule (it was only then that it dawned on me what all those squiggly lines in Microsoft Word had been about). I subsequently adopted it with the zeal of the convert and mercilessly imposed the distinction on unsuspecting journalists’ copy back here. I’ve long since come to my senses because I found that sticking blindly to it produced some, to my ear, quite jarring constructions. Restrictive which is used so naturally in speech here that it seemed pedantic and odd to ‘correct’ it in writing. I think as long as no rogue commas obscure the intended meaning, then either word will do and it’s just a matter of personal preference and the writer’s style.

  14. Stan says:

    Hi Sharon, and welcome! Thanks for your interesting comment. I went through a brief phase of believing in the rule too, back when I was a writing/editing amateur. (Maybe that explains my zeal in condemning it.) Coming across the rule, knowing no better, and realising I hadn’t been observing it, I quickly added it to my stylistic arsenal. But like you I came to my senses in the face of what was natural, literate and grammatical. Your last line sums it all up very well, though I would add house style as another factor – and one that can influence writers in contexts beyond its province.

  15. […] recent comment got me thinking about whilst, which is generally synonymous with while but has an older, more […]

  16. Sharon says:

    Thank you for the welcome! I think all young editors are suckers for language ‘rules’ – not beginning sentences with conjunctions or ending them with prepositions, and so on. Then after a while you step back and realise you are mangling perfectly good writing for the sake of some narrow concept of what constitutes proper grammar. The result is often not very natural. I still have a few pet peeves – I hunt down comma splices like a sniffer dog! – but generally these days I give writers a lot more leeway to express themselves in their own voice. (Hopefully they would agree.)

    • Stan says:

      I guess it’s natural for young and relatively inexperienced wordsmiths to take style authorities on faith, especially when dubious rules appear alongside more sensible guidance. The neatness of the that/which rule is also appealing: it’s only when you look more closely that you see the problems it can cause and the fact that people everywhere (including the best writers) have ignored it for centuries.

      Your sniffer-dog abilities are an obvious advantage in editing, but I’ve gotten used to seeing comma splices in fiction especially, and have a growing collection!

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  21. You may not only well be right, you’re 100% right. What a mess.

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