Thursday, May 18, 2006

The time is now

Sometimes I forget how much I love Geoff Pullum*. And then a friend asks me when she should use that and which and I get to point her to this doozy. The relevant part:

But the rest (familiar copy-editor changes all) are based on nothing more or less than flatly false claims about what is grammatical in contemporary Standard English. This copy editor should be told not just to lay off, but to go to school and take a serious grammar course. Enough of these
19th-century snippets of grammatical nonsense that waste authors' time all over the English-speaking world. Let me go through the grammar points on which poor Mark is being corrected, one by one:

There is an old myth that which is not used in integrated relative clauses (e.g. something which I hate) and that has to be used instead something that I hate). It is completely untrue. The choice between the two is free and open. The people who repeat the old story about which being banned do not respect the prohibition in their own writing (Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage points out a book by Jacques Barzun which recommends against it on one page and then unthinkingly uses it on the next!). I don't respect it either — re-read that last parenthesis. As a check on just how common it is in excellent writing, I searched electronic copies of a few classic novels to find the line on which they first use which to introduce an integrated relative, to tell us how much of the book you would need to read before you ran into an instance:
A Christmas Carol (Dickens): 1,921 lines, first occurrence on line 217 = 11% of the way through;
Alice in Wonderland (Carroll): 1,618 lines, line 143 = 8%;
Dracula (Stoker): 9,824 lines, line 8 = less than 1%;
Lord Jim (Conrad): 8,045 lines, line 15 = 1%;
Moby Dick (Melville): 10,263 lines, line 103 = 1%;
Wuthering Heights (Bronte): 7,599 lines, line 56 = 0.736%...

Do I need to go on? No. The point is clear. On average, by the time you've read about 3% of a book by an author who knows how to write you will already have encountered an integrated relative clause beginning with which. They are fully grammatical for everyone. The copy editors are enforcing a rule which has no support at all in the literature that defines what counts as good use of the English language. Their which hunts are pointless time-wasting nonsense.

Have I made myself absolutely clear? Well, just in case, I will say
this once more in a box, in a larger typeface designed to catch the attention of dimwitted people or perhaps even copy editors:

The things mentioned above are not debatable, they are facts about English that can easily be checked, and it is about time copy editors were told to stop wasting millions of hours on pointlessly correcting them when they were correct in the first place.

God dammit, I can feel the veins standing out in my neck. I need to step outside for a while and kick something.

My favorite comeback from the prescriptivists is the pragmatic one:
“Well regardless of whether it’s a real rule or not, educated people now think it’s a rule, so we better follow it or they will think we’re stupid.”
This is particularly effective in marketing where the last thing you want is the customer thinking you’re an idiot.

The only way to address this problem is with central planning. Now normally I’m a free market guy when it comes to language. I have no faith in language academies. But these are desperate times. Our language can no longer afford to be handled by just anyone. So an Academy of English headed by an enlightened ruler like Geoff, might just be in order.

*If only he’d notice me!

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