March 04, 2008

For National Grammar Day: Copy editors, we do not hate your guts!

I want to begin my celebration of National Grammar Day (goofy idea though it may be) by disabusing Mr John McIntyre, assistant managing editor for the copy desk at the Baltimore Sun, of his belief that "the linguists at Language Log ... hate copy editors' guts."

No, no, no, good heavens, no! Just about every writer at Language Log has experience with publishing books, and has benefited from the close and expert attention of copy editors in finding errors and inconsistencies, and accepted with gratitude frequent suggestions about removing unintended ambiguities or clumsiness in grammar. Does anyone really think that Rodney Huddleston and I could have completed our 1860-page grammar of English without being much indebted to the expert assistance of a dedicated Cambridge University Press copy editor? No. Copy editors are a blessing, and a necessity. And on the human side, Mr McIntyre in particular looks (in the photo on his blog) friendly and humorous, and I am certain we would like each other if we could just get together and have a drink together and talk grammar. Which perhaps we will. All of us here at Language Log Plaza recognize that John's mock warning of linguistic warfare breaking out in the streets today is written with tongue in cheek. Yes, I know I once wrote (out of sympathy with a man who was wrestling with some silly proposals for puristic alterations to the text of his book) a piece called "More timewasting garbage, another copy-editing moron"; but this is not about hating people's guts.

Copy editors in general are nice people playing a valuable role, but they do waste some of their time doing silly make-work things in the service of house style rules that should be dropped. And they can be wrong on grammatical topics. In the post about which and that cited above, where Mr McIntyre made the guts-hating remark, he is wrong from top to bottom about syntactic facts concerning relative clauses. Let me explain.

Mr McIntyre's thesis about which and that is quadripartite: he holds that

  • the word which should be used only to introduce what CGEL calls supplementary relative clauses (the kind with the commas), and
  • which should introduce all those supplementary relatives that have non-human head nouns; and
  • that should be used only to introduce only those relative clauses of the kind that CGEL calls integrated relative clauses (the kind without the commas), and
  • that should introduce all those integrated relatives that have non-human head nouns.

This is a recommendation that Henry Fowler made regarding relative clauses. It has never been uniformly followed by good writers in either Britain or America, and Fowler never thought for one moment that it had. It was a quixotic proposal for change. It had no hope of success. William Strunk did not observe the rule in his writing. (Jan Freeman of the Boston Sunday Globe discovered the astonishing fact is that E. B. White went through The Elements of Style in the middle 1950s and altered Strunk's text to conceal this. And I discovered within two minutes of examining White's own prose that White didn't follow (i) or (iv) either).

Parts of the quadripartite claim, though, are unexceptional: part (ii) and thus also part (iii) are overwhelmingly complied with by everyone: supplementary relatives introduced by that do turn up in prose and in speech every now and then (I catch one every few months, and they pass without remark, being too rare to attract copy editors' notice), but they are fantastically rare. That's fine with me, of course.

It is parts (i) and (iv) that are the bone of contention. American copy editors (including John McIntyre, it seems) waste company time "correcting" prose to make it comply in certain cases. They are completely misguided in doing so, and it makes me sad to see nice people forced to carry out tedious and pointless pseudo-work.

The problem with (i) and (iv) is that they are false claims about English syntax and no one can make them true by reiterating them.

Fronted prepositions   Mr McIntyre would never even think of trying to follow his rule when a fronted preposition precedes the introducer of the relative clause. Thus he writes the shibboleths to which newspapers' in-house style guides are prone (where to which newspapers' in-house style guides are prone is an integrated relative clause), and not *the shibboleths to that newspapers' in-house style guides are prone, because the latter is completely ungrammatical. So much for whether (iv) is always followed: it isn't, not even by Mr McIntyre.

Ambiguity   The same facts likewise dispose of the suggestion that what's at stake here is preventing ambiguity from arising between relative clauses of integrated and supplementary types. Where the head noun is non-human and there is a fronted preposition, both types of clause have to begin with Preposition + which. It's the commas that eliminate the ambiguity, not the choice of the wh-word that introduces the relative clause.

McIntyre's title   But never mind the preposition cases, where the rule is impossible to follow; does McIntyre at least follow the rule when he could? Let's look at the title of the relevant post: "That which we dispute". It is a counterexample to his own claim. The which we dispute there is an integrated relative clause (no commas), and it has been introduced by which, quite properly, so that we don't get a visually annoying that that sequence: if his stuff were edited at Language Log Plaza and I "corrected" his title to That that we dispute, he'd be rightly furious. So much for whether he even follows his own rule when he could: he doesn't, because he's sensible. He chose correctly.

McIntyre's that example   Now let's look at his examples. The first is from "Annie Get Your Gun": the phrase the girl that I marry. But it's completely irrelevant. It has a human head noun (girl), so choosing which would be out of the question: nobody writes *the girl which I marry, because the grammar requires that the wh-word should be who. And the girl who(m) I marry is not objected to by copy editors. (Whether they would typically insist on whom is not the point here; the point is that which is impossible.) Incidentally, this example again shows that ambiguity is not the issue: no comma, so who(m) I marry is an integrated relative clause.

McIntyre's which example   His example for correct use of which is from "My Fair Lady": A man was made to help support his children,/ Which is the right and proper thing to do. But again it is not relevant, because the line beginning with which is one of those special supplementary relatives that doesn't have a noun antecedent at all: the understood antecedent is the clause to help support his children. That's what is claimed to be the right and proper thing to do. There is no integrated relative clause parallel to this: integrated relatives can never modify clauses the way this one is doing. Mr McIntyre is picking examples that are entirely irrelevant to illustrating the point he claims to want to support.

Non-defining integrated relatives   Finally, he picks on the phrase the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee that has been investigating the government's response to Katrina, and claims that it is a grammatical mistake because the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee in question is unique. He thinks the wording "would suggest that there are multiple Government Affairs Committees and that we are here specifying the one investigating Katrina": because this is not so, he believes, this noun phrase cannot take an integrated relative clause. What he is pushing here is the view that integrated relatives always define or restrict. He is wrong: they don't. There is nothing wrong with sentences like After his wife died, he keenly missed the marital companionship that he had enjoyed for so many years. There are no multiple entities describable as companionships: there is just the wifely company he enjoyed, which is unique. Yet in this case the additional fact that he used to enjoy it can be expressed by an integrated relative clause. Notice also the ubiquitous cellphone chatter that annoys me so much on buses and trains: the constant chatter is unique, but there is nothing wrong with attaching an integrated relative clause.

This, in fact, is why CGEL didn't adopt the terms "restrictive relative clause" or "defining relative clause": it just isn't true that things line up so that integrated relatives always define or restrict, and supplementary relatives never do, and by their restrictiveness or lack of it ye shall know them. There are tendencies for them to be used that way, but one shouldn't take a simplistic view of those tendencies.

Main points   So let me summarize a few points and conclude.

  • Integrated relative clauses beginning with which are fully grammatical and always have been.

  • Which is actually required in some cases, as Mr McIntyre's own excellent prose clearly shows.

  • Such uses of which do not contribute ambiguity to properly punctuated prose.

  • There is no reason for copy editors to alter an understandable sentence in which a competent author has selected which rather than that to begin an integrated relative clause (there seem to be rather subtle meaning differences, and it should surely be up to the writer to decide which shade of meaning to suggest).

  • It is in any case an insult to intelligent copy editors to imply that their job could be taken over by computer programs running simple substitution routines.

This is not an anti-copy-editor position. I'm saying copy editors are highly trained, intelligent people who couldn't do their job without great sensitivity to nuances of meaning and style. Mechanical which-hunting is not a good idea, and (as I have shown here) the reasoning with which some copy editors support it is unsound. For the most part, writers simply do not need to be policed over their choice of how to begin a relative clause, and that is why British copy editors normally pay no attention to the matter.

Mr McIntyre has many who will back him up in his preferences, of course. The first commenter on his post says, "John, this is one where I'll stand at your side to the death against those Language Loggers." (To the death! Are alternations between word choices in different types of relative clauses worth dying for?) But I have given some simple syntactic facts above that cannot reasonably be contested (the points about fronted prepositions, non-human head nouns, lack of ambiguity, and so on). I think copy editors would do well to work with linguists rather than pretend that it must be war between us. (And yes, of course, I should be careful not to spend too much time on humorous rants against timewasting garbage and copy-editing morons; except that this is Language Log, and I know that if I promised never to rant again you would be deeply disappointed.)

At the very least, let us pledge on this National Grammar Day that even if linguists can never make the copy editing profession believe that changing which to that is a superstitious behavior that should be beneath them, we can make it clear and plain that we do not hate any of the internal or external organs of the fine people who attempt with considerable success to keep up the quality level of printed prose. Copy editors are worthy souls, who should not be judged by the silliest things they do any more than linguists should. And we do not hate their guts.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at March 4, 2008 06:36 AM