Grammatical episodes Articles: Excerpt: Grammar Snobs are Great Big Meanies

Despite the somewhat off-putting title, there is some useful advice in this excerpt from a new book, which explains when to use "that" and "which", a distinction that is meat and drink to subeditors (copyeditors to US readers) and like-minded people. I haven’t looked it up in Hart’s Rules but if I did I imagine it would be one of those typical Hart’s entries that says, in effect, everyone disagrees and so latitude is allowed. (Such entries enrage the type of person who is insistent that one should never split an infinitive, for example.)

Here is June Casagrande, author of the strangely titled book, on that/which:

"Which" sets off what are called "nonessential" or "nonrestrictive" clauses. (It’s the same principle as the one we learned about in chapter 10 regarding how to use commas.) In simpler English, "nonessential" or "nonrestrictive" clauses are simply clauses that can be lifted right out of a sentence without changing its primary point. The college, which you are attending, admits anyone who can spell her own name. The main point of the sentence is that the college admits just about anyone. The fact that you are currently attending it is an extra bit of information, an aside. Everything in between the commas can be surgically removed from the sentence without changing the simple point that the college admits flunkies.

More of the same at the link, which I found via Booksquare.

Incidentally, note that I did not hyphenate "strangely titled book". Another grammatical point is that you don’t need to hyphenate a noun qualified by an adverb and an adjective, becuase there is no ambiguity. You do need to hyphenate a noun qualified by two adjectives only if there is an ambiguity, for example the red-nosed reindeer.

Here is a web article by Richard Mason entitled "Isn’t it painful to see "they" used in the singular?" I always thought that the answer is "yes", and frequently tie myself up in editing knots on this point. But according to Richard, the answer is "no". He says: "You should not feel any pain from the use of "they" as a singular pronoun, for instance to refer to a person of unknown or unspecified sex, since it is perfectly correct English." I am going to seek advice on this one, it seems a bit radical at first glance — but there does seem to be plenty of blue-chip support (note hyphen) for the usage, not least from Jane Austen.

Dr Ian Hocking said…

Thanks for your comment, Maxine. I think instinct isn’t a bad way to go. Still, it would take a long time to convince that a third-person plural can used in the singular, even if English does suffer from a lack of a gender-neutral pronoun…

8:45 PM

Maxine said…

Yes, I am surprised to read that it is apparently OK to use "they" as a singular gender-neuter pronoun. I will report back if I find out anything authoritative about this usage.

11:25 AM

Maxine said…

I meant to type gender-neutral!

11:26 AM