May 03, 2005

Don't do this at home, kiddies!

safirethat Some people never met a rule of grammar they didn't like.  And some people seem not to have read the books they recommend with enthusiasm.  And some people believe that freedom from social constraints -- those rules of grammar, for instance -- is allowed only for the elite, the professionals and the artists: Don't do this at home, kiddies!

Bill Safire seems to be all three of these, to judge from his exchange on restrictive which versus that with Saul Bellow, as reported in his "On Language" column (in the New York Times Magazine of 1 May 2005, p. 26).

Safire tells us:

...some years back I performed an exegesis in this space on a beautiful extended metaphor the novelist used in one of his rare Op-Ed essays.  Snowbound in Boston, he wrote: "Let the pure snows cool these overheated minds and dilute the toxins which have infected our judgments."

In case anyone complained about his use of "the toxins which" instead of that introducing the restrictive clause "that have infected our judgments," I noted that "you get Nobel prizes for literature, not grammar."  Bellow promptly responded: "I'm only fair at relative pronouns.  I do know the restrictive from the nonrestrictive.  'Which' sounded better than 'that,' and I do go by sounds as well as by grammar."

That I took as a lesson for the overheated minds in the endless struggle of Language Snobs against Language Slobs.  Good writers are free to break the rules of grammar, but their freedom gains meaning when they know the rules and overrule them only for an artistic or polemical reason.

Point 1: Safire just accepts the advice "use that for restrictive relatives, which for nonrestrictive relatives" as a genuine rule of English grammar.  Even H. W. Fowler, whose 1926 formulation of this advice seems to have been the source of the astounding popularity of this "rule" (which has found its way into the practice of thousands of copyeditors, not to mention the Microsoft Word grammar checker), didn't go this far.  Fowler observed: "Some there are who follow this principle now; but it would be idle to pretend that it is the practice either of most or of the best writers."

Fowler's idea was that, since the variation between that and which in nonrestrictive relatives had by 1926 pretty much been eliminated, in favor of which, things would be neat and clean if this variation in restrictive relatives were also eliminated, in favor of that.  He apparently saw no basis for choosing between the two in restrictives and abhorred a choice that would be made entirely on the basis of murky considerations like the "sound" or "feel" of a sentence; there should be Only One Right Way to do anything, and it was the business of those who gave advice on grammar and usage to dictate how people should behave, or at least to exhort them to choose the Right Way.

Most linguists -- especially sociolinguists -- think this a really silly idea, but some people, like Safire, seem to have never met a rule they didn't like, especially if the rule would bring order into apparent chaos. 

In any case, Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage details the sad history of this "rule", noting wryly that authors who recommend it routinely violate it and that the facts of usage are squarely against it.   MWDEU  concludes, "You can use either which or that to introduce a restrictive clause--the grounds for your choice should be stylistic" (as it was for Bellow), and adds, "Formality does not seem to be much of a consideration in the choice", despite what a number of commentators have claimed.

Point 2: The cover of MWDEU carries an enthusiastic recommendation from Safire: "One of the great books on language..."  Now, if only Safire would read the damn book and take its lessons to heart!  Interestingly, the column from which the quotation above is taken is mostly about the puffery of blurbs: "Literary editors have learned to be suspicious of all endorsements." Rightly so, I gather.

Point 3:  The "Don't do this at home, kiddies!" advice -- leave the breaking of rules to the competent professionals, and then only if they have a good reason for breaking them -- is really condescending.  Writers like Bellow are allowed the freedom to have a personal style, but not the rest of us, who are expected to be compliant to arbitrary authority.  Hell no, I won't go.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at May 3, 2005 03:19 PM