February 17, 2006

This week's baffling grammatical advice

Paula Bell's Hightech Writing: How to Write for the Electronics Industry (Wiley, 1985) has a short section on relative clauses in its chapter on grammar.  It begins (p. 110):

Relative clauses--which are introduced by the relative pronouns what, whose, who, whom, that, and which--should immediately follow the nouns they modify.

Careful readers will have noticed that in this list.  That certainly can introduce relative clauses, but it's also certainly not a pronoun.  However, this mis-categorization is very common in writing about English grammar -- even MWDEU gets this wrong -- so let's just pass over it, scowling.  (Meanwhile, she fails to mention "zero", or "contact", relatives, with no relative marker, as in the book I just read.)

Really careful readers will also  have noticed what on the list: when can what be used as a relative pronoun?  In fact, pretty much every book of grammatical advice observes that the relative pronoun what, though quite old in English, is now thoroughly non-standard, though sometimes rustically colorful: "Dance with the ones what brung you".  Is that what Bell is thinking of?

No, and we don't have to wait to find out.  She takes up the relative markers in the order she listed them, so what comes first.  This is the ENTIRE subsection on what:

Don't use what in sentences like [The following paragraphs tell what steps to take]; instead use the.

Baffling.  It's thoroughly confused, and stunningly unhelpful to boot.

First, what steps to take in the example above is not a headed relative clause; it does not follow a noun, much less a noun it modifies.  It's a subordinate clause serving as the direct object of the verb tell.

Second, what steps to take in the example above is not even a headless, or "free", relative.  Now, what can indeed introduce free relatives -- as in What she had in her hand sparkled 'that which she had in her hand sparkled, the thing (that/which) she had in her hand sparkled' -- so it does indeed belong on a list of relative pronouns.  It's just that what steps to take in the example above is not a free relative; it's an interrogative clause, with the WH determiner what modifying the following noun steps.  (Which would be possible in the place of what, though with a slightly different meaning.)  The determiners what and which cannot, in fact, occur in restrictive relative clauses, whether headed or free; they are specifically interrogative:

  the solution which occurred to them
 *the solution which/what idea occurred to them

  What she had in her hand sparkled.
 *What/which thing she had in her hand sparkled.

A further relevant difference between free relatives and subordinate interrogatives: both can be infinitival rather than finite, but infinitival free relatives (as in The person to see is Kim) do not allow a relative marker (*The person who/which/that to see is Kim), while subordinate interrogatives must of course have their WH words (I don't know who/which to see).

Corresponding to the differences in syntax between free relatives and interrogative subordinate clauses (of which I've given only a sampling here), there's also a subtle semantic difference: free relatives denote ordinary individuals, like the sparkly thing in her hand, while subordinate interrogatives denote answers to questions, like the answer to the question "What steps should I take?"

To summarize so far: Bell's example is utterly irrelevant to a discussion of relative clauses.  It has an interrogative construction, not a relative one, in it.

And there's nothing wrong with it, grammatically or stylistically.  Yes, it has a near-paraphrase with the in place of what: The following paragraphs tell the steps to take.   This is a kind of covert interrogative, and I suspect that it's harder to process than the version with what, which is overtly interrogative.

Finally, Bell just tells her readers not to use what in "sentences like" The following paragraphs tell what steps to take.  How on earth can the reader be expected to generalize from this one example?  What other sentences, exactly, are like this one?  (Does the proscription extend to I don't know what steps to take?  To The following paragraphs tell which steps to take?  To What steps to take is a mystery? And on and on.)

Yes, I understand that Bell might have been reluctant to introduce a lot of grammatical terminology.  But if she wants to pick out subordinate interrogatives with WH determiners for special treatment, she's going to have to get technical.  Otherwise, her advice is simply useless, and the little subsection on "relative" what would have been better omitted.

(Once again, thanks to Elizabeth Daingerfield Zwicky, for continuing to feed me obscure, out-of-print, used, and remaindered books on grammar, usage, and style.)

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at February 17, 2006 02:44 PM