May 22, 2005

Five more thoughts on the That Rule

As the mail on restrictive which vs. that pours in, I have the feeling of deeper understanding about some of it, and of deeper bafflement about other aspects.  Five thoughts on the That Rule, which I considered most recently in these precincts here:

  • First thought: There  is a sense (alluded to by James Smith in an ADS-L posting of 13 May) in which text that obeys the That Rule is clearer than text that does not, though text of the latter sort is not actually UNclear.
  • But on second thought, this extra bit of clarity is achieved by a prescription that has at least three odd characteristics: it seeks to eliminate an option long available in the formal standard written language; in doing so, it insists on increasing the redundancy of this variety (though prescriptions are usually profoundly conservative in this regard, insisting that redundancy in the standard language is exactly right in amount and in exactly the right places); and it opts -- surprisingly -- in favor of the variant (that) which is widely perceived as being the more INformal alternative.
  • Third thought: The That Rule has disseminated very unevenly.  The primary agents of its spread seem to those responsible for overseeing the editing of copy for newspapers and book publishing, especially in the United States.  American journalists figure prominently in the story.  Meanwhile, many people not involved in the editing enterprise (including scholars of grammar and usage) seem to have missed the "rule" entirely or to have tuned it out as irrelevant to their concerns.  One result is a startling disparity between, on the one hand, the advice books and style sheets that presses put out and, on the other hand, the grammars of English (some intended for students) that these same presses publish.
  • Fourth thought: In the process of dissemination, the That Rule has made its way into textbooks and manuals for writers.  Once there, the prescription might well go on forever as a "zombie rule"; no matter how many times, and how thoroughly, it is executed by authorities (like Quirk, Biber, Huddleston & Pullum, or, for that matter, me), it continues its wretched life-in-death in style sheets and grammar checkers and the like.
  • Fifth thought: For some, the zombie quasi-life of the That Rule has led to its being seen as a mere matter of "house style", like capitalization practices or font choice.  Well, this might explain the deep puzzlement that I get from editors when I insist on my right to use restrictive which, and their reaction when I charge that the disparate recommendations of their presses makes them look like a pack of hypocrites or fools -- which is to conclude that I'm a lunatic.  They don't see an issue.  House style is house style, right?

Now for some details.

Thought 1 begins with James Smith's posting:

I support "which/that" prescriptivism, in particular in formal language.  I find documents written in compliance with this rule are easier to read and clearer than those that ignore it...

In a sense, this this true, though documents that "ignore" the rule are not in any way unclear, as I pointed out in my last posting on this subject: so long as the punctuation is correct, there's no ambiguity or unclarity.  Nothing's unclear in "This is a day which will live in infamy" (FDR, via Huddleston & Pullum's Student's Introduction to English Grammar).  For that matter, nothing's unclear in "This is a day, which will live in infamy", though it's a really stupid sentence.

But following the That Rule makes your text EVEN CLEARER, since it will have redundant indications of the distinction between restrictive and non-restrictive relatives.  Every relative clause will have the distinction marked BOTH by punctuation AND ALSO by the choice of subordinator.  Hammer.  Nail.  Bang TWICE.  Who could argue with that?

Smith in fact goes on to suggest that the That Rule is really important only in the special circumstances of formal written English:

For general and informal usage, I - like most people IMO - ignore the "rule" with no great harm.  I first encountered this rule in graduate school - perhaps it is not meant for the unwashed masses.  :)

On to my second thoughts, which like Gaul come in three parts.

The That Rule is a "prescription by excision": it proposes to eliminate an alternative that had been long available in the formal written standard language. (The availability of which as a restrictive relative subordinator for hundreds of years is amply demonstrated in the literature on English grammar, in particular on the syntax used by "good writers".)  This is important: the That Rule is a proposal to CHANGE the formal written standard, by removing some of its flexibility.

That's already peculiar, though not unprecedented.  There's the Possessive Antecedent Proscription (*Mary's father adores her), the No Stranded Prepositions rule (*Which parent does the child take after?), the No Split Infinitives rule (*I'm going to France to not get fat), and a number of less well-known proscriptions that I hope to talk about in this space eventually.  All of these are attempts to get people who write formal written standard English to give up some of the options that have long been available to them.

Prescriptions by excision arise, I think, from two motivations: misguided "theoretical" considerations -- possessives are adjectives, so pronouns can't refer back to them, infinitival to forms a word with the verb that follows it, English should be like Latin, etc. -- and well-meant, but also misguided, attempts to prevent writers from falling into error by totally keeping them away from the structures in question -- avert the ambiguity of Mary's mother thinks she is adorable by outlawing ALL possessives as antecedents of pronouns (recall Smith on the "great unwashed" above).  Or, of course, both. 

What unites these two sorts of motivations is that someone has to have the bright idea.  Somebody has to think through to a hypothesis (however wrong) about English syntax.  Somebody has to note a problem in writing or reading and formulate a "rule" (however overbroad) to cover the case.  Prescriptions by excision have originators; if we are lucky, we can even identify them.  And these originators had to make their bright ideas explicit, put them into words.

Now, this sort of explicit attempt at tinkering with the language just can't be common, welcome, or particularly successful.  People have to get on with their lives, after all.  Prescriptions by excision are, as a result, pretty odd ducks.

The That Rule is not only a prescription by excision.  It's also a prescription in favor of redundancy.

The usual prescriptive take on redundancy is that whatever the formal written standard is, it has EXACTLY the right amount of redundancy, in EXACTLY the right places.  Preserve things just as they are, that's the ticket.  Reject the non-standard, the informal, the innovative, the regional, the spoken.  Irregardless, return back, continue on, etc. are pleonastic, but lack of 3sg -s in non-standard varieties is insufficiently informative.  There is no reasoning from first principles here: whatever is, is right.  (The prescriptive take on (ir)regularity is similar.)

So it's really odd to hear advice that redundancy in the formal written standard language should be increased.

As if this all weren't odd enough, there's the fact that the prescribed variant, that, is the one that's widely perceived as being the more informal alternative.  Prescriptions are generally hostile to variants that are perceived (correctly or, as is often the case, incorrectly) as being informal.  We are told not to strand prepositions, not to use reduced auxiliaries (I'm), not to use negative verb forms in n't (don't), etc., all on the supposition that these are markedly informal alternatives.  (In fact, in most contexts the other alternatives are markedly formal and these variants are stylistically unmarked, but let that pass.)  The variant that is unaccented, "more reduced", than the variant which, so many careful writers choose which in order to convey seriousness and emphasis; they are then baffled and outraged -- I think, rightly so -- when teachers take grades off for their choice of restrictive which over that.

Ok, that's all three parts of my second thoughts.

Thought 3 begins with a disparity I've written about here before.  The big modern scholarly grammars of English -- Quirk et al., Biber et al., Huddleston & Pullum et al. -- don't recognize any such thing as the That Rule.  Q and H&P simply list that and which (without comment) as alternative subordinators in restrictive relatives, while B goes to the trouble to provide corpus evidence in favor of restrictive which.

The grammars intended for students don't recommend the That Rule either.  The Oxford English Grammar (by Greenbaum, from the Quirk shop) just lists the alternatives, while the Cambridge Guide to English Usage (Peters, 2004) allows both variants and cites the Biber evidence, though noting that the Chicago Manual of Style endorses the That Rule "and American editors and writers more often seem to be exponents of it than their counterparts elsewhere."

As I've said here before, the high-end advice manuals are more open to which than the low-end guys.  But, as it turns out, I have been unfair to Bryan Garner, author of several Oxford-published usage dictionaries.  (The most recent -- 2003 -- of these is Garner's Modern American Usage, the title of which I'm inclined to see as OUP's attempt to distance themselves from Garner's idiosyncrasies.  Note that comprehensive reference works on English grammar and usage have for some years been the collaborative work of many people.  This makes sense, given the scope of the task.  Works by individuals, like Garner's dictionaries, look like expressions of individual and eccentric taste, in a tradition from another time.  I'm not saying people shouldn't be allowed to publish whatever their personal opinions are about their language, but I'm seriously unhappy when a major press publishes these assembled crotchets as a manual of usage.  But I wander from my point...) 

So what does Garner say in GMAU?  He's an idiot.  On page 832:

Suffice it to say here that if you see a which with neither a preposition nor a comma, dash, or parenthesis before it, it should probably be a that.

(This is a somewhat improved, though still baroque, version of the proscription I formulated in my last posting here.  Neither version encompasses the obligatory which after that in things like "That which does not kill me makes me stronger".  This one's in H&P.  But the larger question is whether a proscription is appropriate al all.) 

This is Strunk & White, the Associated Press style manual, the American Psychological Association style manual, the Chicago Manual of Style, and tons of house style sheets.  And the magisterial Robert Hartwell Fiske in The Dictionary of Disagreeable English (2004), who labels restrictive which as "solecistic for that" (p. 320) and goes on to tell us:

In the United States, the restrictive, or defining that is used when the clause it begins is necessary to the meaning of the sentence; the nonrestrictive, or nondefining, which is used when the clause is not necessary, when it is parenthetical, to the sentence.  Which clauses are generally separated by commas...; that clauses are not.  Observing the distinction between these two words and their clauses is indispensable to understanding clearly and effortlessly the sentences in which they appear.

Oi.  How did we get to this, from Fowler's 1926 tentative suggestion that English might be better if the functions of relative clauses were clearly distinguished by their subordinating words?  And what's this "in the United States" stuff?  I mean, Fowler was unquestionably an Englishman.

I'm still pawing through this stuff, but it looks like the path of dissemination for the That Rule was through people who oversee the editing of copy for publication, in newspapers, magazines, or books.  The early figures in the spread of the "rule" have connections to journalism or other forms of editing for publication.  Even today, people report that they first came across the "rule" in these contexts: on ADS-L, Bethany Dumas (13 May) tells us she "didn't always pay attention to the rule" until she got to law school; Paul Frank (14 May) says it was drummed into him in grad school at Harvard and Michigan; Jon Lighter (16 May) heard about it from "a journalism major at NYU around 1972".  Meanwhile, Doug Wilson (10 May) learned about using commas, but says he never had to deal with the That Rule until the Microsoft grammar checker began to ding at him.  Actual journalists, like Linda Seebach (e-mail of 10 May) just take the "rule" for granted.

Well, they do if they're American.  Paul Frank observed -- correctly, I think -- that British publications like the Guardian simply don't observe the "rule", and added that The Economist, which has a transatlantic audience, includes it in its style sheet but often flouts it in articles.

There is a certain tradition for prescription by excision in American journalism -- I intend to write about some other cases here -- and I don't entirely understand it.  But it seems to have contributed to the spread of the That Rule in the U.S.

Ok, thought 4.  Once the That Rule has some status in American copy editing, the institutions that prepare people for serious adult life are going to work to enforce that rule.  It's going to appear in school texts, in advice books for business people, and the like.

Once a "rule" gets this status, it's pretty well entrenched.  It will be handed down from one advice manual to another.  It will appear on standardized tests.  No matter how passionately authorities like Q, H&P, and B (and the rest of us) argue that it's a fiction, no matter how thoroughly we try to drive the stake into its heart, it will lurch on, perhaps for centuries.  (I will eventually write about other zombie rules with weaker legs than the That Rule.  But still they go on.  Buffy, we need you.)

Finally, thought 5.  Every so often, I've had to deal with editors from presses who are genuinely puzzled by the passion I have invested in protesting the That Rule.  It's just a matter of house style, they say; it has nothing to do with syntax.  You say how capitalization works, you tell people what fonts to use and how paragraphing is indicated and all that.  And you tell people which subordinators to use in restrictive relative clauses.  Why are YOU getting your knickers in a twist?  I mean (they say), this is basically all arbitrary stipulation, the only function of which is to create and maintain consistency in the press's publications.  (Some writers, like Louis Menand, even revel in arbitrary "rules" for their own sake.)

Twice, my aggressive truculence about the That Rule (and a collection of other zombie rules) has prompted editors to cave in to my craziness and let me do whatever I want.  Me.  Not anyone else, just me, for this one book.  They were then baffled that I didn't view this response as really satisfactory.  I pointed out that the scholarly books their firms published on English grammar uniformly failed to subscribe to the That Rule, so that their presses looked like packs of hypocrites and fools.  They simply didn't get it.  For them, one thing is scholarship, the other thing is practice.  They're just different.

Every so often I really run off the rails and rant.  Paraphrasing some from my e-mail to one of these presses:

Sometimes I wonder: if the people who make up style sheets and enforce them are so damn fond of arbitrary and indefensible "rules" not grounded in usage, even the usage of the intellectual elites, why don't they just invent some?  Say, your press won't publish any word with the letter "z" in it, or any sentence that begins with a vowel letter, or any occurrence of the pseudocleft construction, or the sequence "is for" (no matter how it arises)?  I can think of hundreds of entertaining "rules" of this sort.  You could hire people to enforce them, and make every book published by your press ENTIRELY CONSISTENT with them.  And then schoolchildren everywhere could be drilled on these "rules".  Your press could go down in history.

Hey, John Dryden did it for stranded prepositions.  Some still-unidentified person(s) did it for possessive antecedents for pronouns, less than a century ago.  There's plenty of territory still available.  Talk it up to your board.

Somewhat more seriously (though my rant is not entirely unserious), there are hundreds and hundreds of stylistic choices that could be excised.  The option between that relatives and zero relatives, for example: the people (that) I met.  The option between complementizer that and no complementizer, for another: I think (that) we should go.  I could go on for quite a while.  Why are we being allowed to make these choices willy-nilly?  Why isn't there a CLEAR RULE about which choice to make?  How is the That Rule different from these putative rules?

As a final little twist, I should note that at least once the choice of that over which has been justified to me by someone who pointed out that that has one letter less than which.  Brevity rules.  It's like not using the serial comma; after all, that final comma isn't necessary because the and signals the end of the list.  That is, the final comma is redundant, and therefore not necessary, so we can save a little bit of space.

Whoops.  DON'T use the final comma because it's redundant (and therefore unnecessary).  USE that because it's redundant (and therefore clearer).  What's a poor boy to do?

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at May 22, 2005 02:00 AM