That which does not kill me …

I recently heard that someone had been advised against ever using the word ‘that’ in their writing. Editors are often asked to clarify rules for people who were terrorised at some point in their education about prepositions, pronouns and prose, but this one was new to me. ‘That’ has many functions in English, so many that I felt anyone trying to speak or write without it would come across as if the reception were breaking up.

‘That’ can be all kinds of trouble to a writer because it can function as:

  • a demonstrative adjective (you’ll see in that magazine)
  • a demonstrative pronoun (hey, look at that!)
  • a relative pronoun (I had dinner at the restaurant that everyone was raving about)
  • a conjunction (we know that she is in cahoots with him)
  • an adverb (she was that mad!)

It turns out that the advice was about preferring ‘which’ over ‘that’ in the case of relative pronouns, under the assumption that the former was more correct in writing, and the latter should be reserved for speech. This idea was described as ‘a supposed, & misleading, distinction’ by Fowler in 1926. He explained the different frequency of their use as evidence of more complex structures in writing, where more peripheral information is packed into a single sentence, than is usual in speech, where people tend to keep sentences simple and add information by making new sentences.

The most common problem with that/which is in defining versus non-defining relative clauses. Consider these two sentences:

The women in my class, who are doctors, are left-handed.

The women in my class who are doctors are left-handed.

Non-defining clause

The first of these is an example of a non-defining clause. That is, the part in the middle that is set off from the rest by the commas does not ‘define’ the first part. It’s just an extra piece of information. My main statement is that ‘the women in my class are left-handed’. As it happens, they are also all doctors. Non-defining clauses are always set apart from the main clause by a pair of commas.

Defining clause

The second example shows a defining clause. In this case, there are some women in my class, but only some of those women, the ones who are doctors, are left-handed.

When you’re talking about people you use the relative pronoun ‘who’. But what if you’re talking about inanimate objects? Then you have a choice between ‘that’ and ‘which’:

Non-defining: The books in my house, which are fiction, are very old.
(can only use ‘which’ here, and the additional information is set off with commas)

Defining: The books in my house that are fiction are very old.
(can use either ‘which’ or ‘that’)

In the first example, my main statement is that all of my books are very old. It happens that they are also all fiction. In the second example, I’m making a statement that only the fiction books in my house are very old.

The rule is that you can’t use ‘that’ for a non-defining clause, but you can use ‘which’ in either defining or non-defining clauses. So in that second example we could have said ‘The books in my house which are fiction are very old’ and it would have meant the same thing. Fowler lamented in 1926 that it would be much clearer if we all agreed to use ‘which’ only for the non-defining clauses and always use ‘that’ for the defining clauses, but it’s just not the way the world is.

After editing many reports with complex sentences that contain relative clauses, which can make a sentence long and unwieldy, I agree with him completely.

References and other sources

Fowler HW. 1926. A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1st ed.). Clarendon Press. Oxford.

Grammar Girl on ‘that/which’

OWL at Purdue on relative pronouns

Macaroons on National Grammar Day

Yesterday was National Grammar Day (in the US, at least), which has given rise to a mountain of competitions, activities, blogs, cartoons, tweets and other miscellaneous celebrations of the invisible web that holds language together. I blogged last week about the haiku competition; the winner was Larry Kunz, with this dangling modifier entry:

Being a dangler,
Jane knew it would have to come
out of the sentence

There were some gorgeous entries:

Send not to ask for
whom the bell tolls. It tolls for
who still uses whom.
dick margulis

Pedants must be told
What they can go and stick their
Prepositions up
Tom Freeman

First person: I love
Second person: You love me
Third person: Uh, oh.

and this one:

beware! so many
irregular verbs have crope
into the English language

This last one, with its belly-to-the-floor ‘crope’, reminded me of something else I saw this week: how the phrase ‘just deserts’ is spelt with one s in ‘deserts’, although it is pronounced as we usually pronounce the version with two s’s – ‘desserts’. I knew that the phrase means ‘to get what you deserve’, but I had always thought it was about ‘desserts’; as a child I must have stored this expression and the expression ‘you can’t have your cake and eat it too’ into the area of my brain reserved for ‘idioms about food’, subsection ‘punitive’. It made perfect sense to me that they belonged together, and that control over a person’s access to sugar was control indeed.

It turns out that ‘just deserts’ is from the French ‘deserver’ and is therefore related to what we deserve. But because we don’t use that form of deserve anymore, the misspelling ‘just desserts’ is very common; a quick search reveals about 5.5 million hits for ‘just desserts’ and only 618,000 for the correct spelling of ‘just deserts’.

Crosswords, like idioms, can be another avenue of preserving words that would otherwise have long fallen into disuse. Examples I’m familiar with include ‘alarum’ as the solution to ‘alarm (arch.)’ (that clue does seem as if the compiler had to scurry off to submit the crossword to the paper’s editor by the evening post, so old-fashioned and stop-gappish is it); ‘ogee’ as the solution to ‘an s-shaped moulding’ and ‘sere’ as the solution to ‘bone dry’.

All this shows is that language is infinitely changing, which is one of the great celebrations of National Grammar Day. Contrary to the view that the day would cause a great smirk of self-satisfaction on the smug mugs of pedants everywhere, it brings out people who can explain why ‘however’ can be used at the beginning of a sentence and why prepositions can be used at the end of a sentence. It attracts people whose interest is language: how it is used as much as how it should be used, and how to improve communication between people so as to avoid this.

Haiku – do you?

An editor is someone who cares about language and about expression, particularly about subtlety and economy of expression, which can seem to be mutually exclusive categories. I was once describing for someone, in long flowing sentences, how much I loved the power of language to inform and to persuade, to build connections and relationships between people, even, in the case of written language, across space and time. He listened patiently, and then said, ‘I find words a rather coarse medium myself,’ thereby demonstrating modesty and mastery of language in one fell swoop.

Poetry is a sharp tool for carving out an exact idea with subtlety and economy, and one form I’ve been reading about recently is haiku. I’ve dabbled in this form while standing in queues (which gave rise to the unimaginative:

An excuse to stop
And practise meditation
While standing in line)

and have had the pleasure recently of listening to Ross Clark talk about being a poet and editing poets’ work. Ross presented to the Queensland Society of Editors’ meeting in February and his description of haiku, which among other things made me realise that my example above is not a good haiku at all, prompted me to read some more about it. I discovered that what I learned in high school about haiku needing to be three lines with the pattern 5, 7 then 5 syllables long was incorrect, and that they usually include a season word and are comparing two visual images for effect. Here’s one from Frogpond, the Journal of the Haiku Society of America:

pinwheeling leaves
thirty-five years end
with the word amicable

Dave Baldwin, Lake Stevens, Washington

So, imagine how pleased I am to see the collision of all that I love about language with my new interest in haiku. National Grammar Day is this Sunday, and it comes complete with a Tweeted Haiku Contest. Last year’s winner was about spelling:

Spell-checkers won’t catch
you’re mistaken homophones
scattered hear and their


Everyone ready?

For the love of verbs

It may seem an odd thing to name a favourite part of speech. They’re all necessary, aren’t they? It would be like saying, ‘My favourite position in football is striker,’ or ‘My favourite ingredient in chocolate cake is cocoa.’ Although editing is as much about the game as the individual players, as much about the cake as the ingredients, I find that in fiction writing I am engaged by verbs and in corporate writing I often reinstate verbs to give them back their power.

In fiction

One thing I love about verbs is how quickly they can capture an image and convey it to a reader.

Take this example:

Ron had to leave. All the aunts and uncles begged him to stay, but he slowly extricated himself from the lounge chair, made his way into the kitchen where he left his cup and saucer on a bench, then out to the passageway. Some of the aunts followed him, and the uncles, having risen more slowly, took the shortcut from the lounge room out to the front door. Ron put his hand on the doorknob and turned as his relatives bottlenecked behind him, all reaching for a kiss or a handshake or shoulder clap. He opened the door a wedge, squeezed through and burst out into the sunlight.

In this piece the word ‘bottlenecked’ evokes the sensations of crowding together into a narrowing space, and of still more people coming from behind, adding to the pressure that results in Ron ‘bursting’ out of the house.

Another example comes from Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2011. The main character, Tony, is describing his teenage years and how his parents and those of his friends repeatedly warned them about the dangers of drugs and peer group pressure and of getting girls pregnant, when they can barely hope to have girls look at them and are getting up to none of the shenanigans their parents are worried about. He says:

How far their anxieties outran our experiences.

The verb ‘outran’ here evokes two streams of action: the one that is actually happening in the lives of the boys, and the one that is happening in the minds of their parents. Had Barnes said, ‘How much worse were their anxieties than our experiences’ (using the verb ‘to be’) the image would have been shapeless and powerless.

In corporate writing

Understanding how verbs work can improve corporate writing too. Although a verb is just one of the links in the chain that is a sentence, this part of speech does have some special qualities. To start with, you can have a one-word sentence consisting only of a verb. ‘Run!’

But most sentences consist of at least a subject and a verb. A subject is a noun or noun phrase: it’s what we’re talking about; and the verb (marked here in italics) is saying something about the actions or state of that noun.

‘Imogen runs.’

Here ‘Imogen’ is the subject of the sentence.

A subject can be longer than this and include all kinds of other information about Imogen.

‘The girl named Imogen runs.’

‘The girl with the dark hair named Imogen runs.’

‘The girl with the dark hair named Imogen, whose brother rides a bicycle beside her, runs.’

The problem of long subjects

You can see that subjects can be very long, and a reader can soon feel lost until they get to the bit that tells us what is going on here: the verb. For this reason I like to think of the verb as the pivot in a sentence. All the time we’re reading the subject we’re having to store information in our minds to make sure we can relate it to the verbal pivot that we know is coming up.

This kind of structure is very common in corporate writing:

‘The government committee for the awarding of corporate citizen medals and other social engagement activities was disbanded.’

We don’t get to the verb here until close to the very end of a long sentence. It would be an easier sentence to understand if we moved the verb closer to the front:

‘The government disbanded the committee that was for the awarding of corporate citizen medals and other social engagement activities.’

(The other problem with this sentence is the passive structure, a topic that deserves its own post.)

The problem of nominalisations

In corporate writing, verbs are often nominalised, or turned into nouns. A weak verb is inserted to replace the strong verb, and the whole sentence is weakened. You can often remove a lot of superfluous words when you trade a weak verb for a strong one.

‘The job of the representative is promotion of our corporate brand.’

Here the verb in the sentence is the weak verb ‘is’. The noun ‘promotion’ is a nominalisation of the strong verb ‘promote’, and this structure requires adding in ‘the job of’, making the whole subject ‘the job of the representative’.

‘The representative promotes our corporate brand.’

Now there is a short subject, ‘the representative’, and a strong verb instead of a weak one. The whole sentence is more succinct.

This isn’t a recommendation to change all sentences in corporate writing to this kind of structure; to do so just introduces a new type of monotonous structure. The variety of structures possible in language is what gives it richness and subtlety. But the problems of long subjects and nominalisations are common in corporate writing and a swing back to shorter structures and strong verbs can only strengthen the communicative power of corporate writing.

Just the right word …

Finding the right word is like finding a bargain – you are fishing through an assortment of possibilities that have some of the right qualities, but not all of them. Suddenly, one option seems to stand out: it is the right size. It is the right colour. And best of all, it is better than the right price!

When it’s the right word, you get a lot for your money. The reader comes away with a sense of coherence of your argument, or perhaps pleasure at an image you’ve conveyed. They may not remember how you did this, but they will remember that you did it.

One example of this in Neil Gaiman’s Stardust. In Chapter One, Gaiman is describing the town of Wall:

There is one road from Wall, a winding track rising sharply up from the forest, where it is lined with rocks and small stones. Followed far enough south, out of the forest, the track becomes a real road, paved with asphalt; followed further the road gets larger, is packed at all hours with cars and lorries rushing from city to city. Eventually the road takes you to London, but London is a whole night’s drive from Wall.

This description of a small town captures very well its distance from an urban centre and from industry, the gradual shift from slow, winding, forested land to the fast, straight lines of highways and busyness. But in that last phrase there is an added element of magic that wasn’t there at the beginning. Who describes a journey as taking the time of ‘a night’? With that one word, the darkness of the forest stays with me longer, the perils of night-time travel are foregrounded and Wall seems otherworldly compared with my imagined early morning (give thanks, for the sun has risen!) arrival in the safety of London.

Words form semantic sets, and with each word you choose, you are not choosing the rest that might have gone in that slot. Each word brings with it a range of connotations that add to the development of your story. So imagine that sentence with these alternatives:

  • London is a whole hour’s drive from Wall (no good, not far enough)
  • London is a whole day’s drive from Wall (ok, so it takes a while, but it’s just toil, and there’s sunshine. What magic happens in broad daylight?)
  • London is a whole week’s drive from Wall (trudge, trudge; no magic)

The choice of ‘night’ sets up the whole story. If you haven’t read this book, I recommend it. You’ll feel the magic too.

Commas before ‘and’ …

Up the garden path − or, why a fanboy comma is your friend

The comma is a valuable punctuation device because it separates the structural elements of sentences into manageable segments.

The Rule:

Use commas to separate independent clauses (that is, a part of a sentence that can stand on its own) when they are joined by any of these seven coordinating conjunctions: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so. The acronym of this list of conjunctions is FANBOYS, so these commas are known as FANBOYS commas.

The game was over, and she was exhausted.

The sentence above is short and clear, so the comma is not really necessary. But in longer sentences, this comma really helps to avoid ambiguity:

Without the FANBOY comma:

The study noticed a general reluctance to relinquish control of those services already delivered locally and criticism of externally provided services tended towards the hypercritical.

Without the comma, this sentence could easily read as:

The study noticed … general reluctance … and criticism.

This is being ‘led up the garden path’. A reader should be able to stay with the author of a sentence for the whole trip, without having to double back and re-read to make sense out of the material. In the above example, the reader has to wait until they get to ‘tended’ to realise that ‘criticism’ is actually the beginning of the second clause, not the end of the first one.

With the FANBOY comma:

The study noticed a general reluctance to relinquish control of those services already delivered locally, and criticism of externally provided services tended towards the hypercritical.

Now it’s clearer that the sentence is really two sentences:

1. The study noticed … general reluctance.

2. Criticism … tended towards the hypercritical.

The comma alerts the reader that, in effect, a new sentence is starting. The reader will process ‘criticism’ as the first word in the new sentence, not as the second item in the list of things noticed in the study.

The Style:

There’s a comma called the Oxford, or serial comma, which comes before the last ‘and’ in a list:

The government works for voters, non-voters, and donkey voters.

There is no clear grammatical rule about whether to use this comma or not – it is a question of style.

In Australian style this comma is usually not used, except where it is required to avoid ambiguity:1

They should seek the support of landholders, philanthropists, government, and community and industry groups.

Here, ‘community and industry groups’ functions as the last item in the list. A comma has been placed before this last item to ensure that ‘community’ stays in the reader’s mind as an adjective for ‘groups’.

The serial comma is used more in American style than in British style (except, of course, at Oxford University Press, after which it is named), but there is by no means consensus. Wikipedia2 has a detailed explanation of who prescribes and proscribes its use, as well as many examples of how it is used to avoid ambiguity.

Other resources:

[1] Snooks and Co. 2002. Style manual: For authors, editors and printers, 6th Edn. John Wiley & Sons, Australia. p. 102.

Dangling modifiers

Misplaced modifiers, like the omission of a FANBOY comma, can lead you up the garden path. The problem is that you think you are saying one thing, and the reader thinks something else entirely.

A modifier says something extra about something. So in the phrase ‘the red car’, the word ‘red’ modifies the word ‘car’. Modifiers are usually adjectives (the red car) or adverbs (she sneezed loudly), but whole phrases can function as modifiers.

Introductory modifying phrases modify the subject of the main clause. For example: ‘Walking in to the hospital, patients will see the admissions desk first.’

Who is walking in to the hospital? The patients.

The example in the photo above is the same structure, but something is wrong. Two things that can go wrong with modifiers are that they can be misplaced or dangling. A misplaced modifier is describing something other than what the author intended to describe, but something which is present in the sentence:

The woman signed the paper with the pale face.

The phrase ‘with the pale face’ should be modifying ‘the woman’, but because it’s closest to ‘the paper’ it sounds as if the paper has a pale face. This should be:

The woman with the pale face signed the paper.

A dangling modifier is one that isn’t present at all in the sentence:

While walking in to the house, the telephone rang.

This sounds as if the telephone was walking into the house. But there’s a missing agent here: who was walking into the house? A person, presumably; the point is, the modifier is left ‘dangling’ because it can’t find anything to attach itself to. Let’s supply the agent:

While walking in to the house, the woman heard the telephone ring.

In the example in the photo above, the question is: Who is a family company? And the answer according to the way it’s currently written is ‘the eggs’. This should be re-written to read: ‘Being a family company, we ensure these eggs are produced …’.

Here are some links to more information about dangling and misplaced modifiers:

Owen, however …

Recently, I was seduced by Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. I haven’t before been drawn in to the whole Paris thing; much as I liked Amelie, it didn’t make me feel the urge to rush over there. Midnight, on the other hand, did. Perhaps it was partly the awful tourist characters who provided the example of ignorance that I knew I would never be. Cough, cough. Of course it was partly the cast: Marion Cotillard, Kathy Bates, Michael Sheen … am I forgetting anyone? Oh, yes, Owen Wilson. I had had the opportunity of seeing the movie the previous weekend and decided against it on the strength of Owen’s being the star. I’ve never really been a fan of his style; he seems to play the same character over again and no one seems to notice. He has all the range of an inchworm. There’s a line in Midnight in Paris where he’s trying to get Gertrude Stein to help him and he says, ‘I would like you to read my novel’; he delivers this with exactly the same level of excitement as he tells his fiancée (spoiler alert), ‘We’re probably not very well suited anyway.’ It’s all the same rhythm: a rise in the middle, a fall, another rise about 2/3 the height of the first and then flatline.

I see this in writing a lot. It happens in many structures, but because I’ve been editing research reports where people are often trying to convey complex arguments what I see is:

Here is a lovely statement about X; however, here’s a statement about Y. Now we have a new statement about Z; however, it’s not the same as this statement about Q.

There’s no problem with doing this; it’s just that when it’s overdone, it has the effect of lulling your reader to sleep as effectively as a long train journey across the Nullabor. You lose the force of your message in that even beat.

The fix is to work out:

  1. Do you really need to position those two ideas against each other?
  2. Can you use another contrasting conjunction such as ‘but’, ‘whereas’, ‘instead’ or ‘yet’. Too many of these, though, and you haven’t fixed the issue of the rhythm.
  3. Can you just use the semi-colon and have the two independent clauses stand so the reader has to infer the relationship between them?
  4. Can you separate the clauses so that they are two separate sentences (at least some of the time)? You could still use a contrasting conjunction, but perhaps use a phrase such as ‘On the other hand’ instead of a single word.
  5. Can you change one of the clauses so that the length is varied in one of them? Perhaps you can add some adjectival phrase, or take out part of one of the sentences.

Also, pay attention to what effect these fixes have on the words you use. You may find that forcing yourself to change things such as sentence length makes you change the vocabulary. That’s a good thing, as it also shows you the subtle shifts in meaning that can come from almost-synonymous words, as opposed to the fuddled, sleepy feeling that can come from almost-identical rhythms.

The lighter side

Who said grammar, spelling and punctuation weren’t funny? Here are some of my favourites, beginning with my favourite Christmas joke:

What do you call Santa’s little helpers?

Subordinate clauses.

What’s the difference between a cat and a comma?

One has claws at the end of its paws and one is a pause at the end of a clause.

Shakespeare walks in to a bar.

The bartender says, ‘You’re bard.’

Here are a few other sites for grammar goodies:

Grammar humour

Tips to improve your writing

Graham Rawle’s Lost Consonants

The Oatmeal: Grammar

Boggleton Drive

Grammar Girl

The OWL at Purdue