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Friday, January 05, 2007

Which hunts

Today’s episode of Little Miss Know-it-All: Non-restrictive clauses.

Russell Smith is a wanna-be. I have been certain of this since the day I discovered that he considers himself a grammar expert, and now it appears that several other people share my disdain.

In his latest column, which is riddled with grammatical errors such as comma misuse, double periods and run-on sentences, he bemoans the fact that he does not know the difference between “that” and “which”.

This could be the best thing that has happened to me all day. It is always exciting to watch a loser at work. We now have proof that Russell should stick to topics like shoelace colour and fingernail length.

Russell first complains that it is very difficult to know which word to use. (You will probably be impressed to learn that I managed to type that sentence without professional assistance.) He says that “non-restrictive clause” is a baffling phrase for regular folks like him. He then goes on to use the words “disquisition”, “perennial”, “pernicious” and “Pascal's Wager”. It is good to know which of us is the snob.

Whenever a person has to look up the proper use of “that”, you can be certain that he is no grammarian. If this person goes on to use words like “non-restrictive clause”, it is a sure sign that he is copying his column from a book with a name like How to Talk Good.

Little Miss Know-it-All has an easy tip for folks like Russell: Use “that” to tell which, and “which” to tell that.

The word “which” often comes right after a comma. It begins a clause that could come out of the sentence if needed: Russell’s flamboyant pink tie, which kept readers from noticing his poor grammar skills, cost $200. The snarky comment about Russell’s grammar is extra information – the important thing here is that his tie cost $200. The clause does not tell you which tie he is wearing: it tells you that it keeps attention away from his lousy grammar.

The word “that” makes the clause an important part of the sentence: Russell is wearing a flamboyant pink tie that keeps readers from noticing his poor grammar skills. Which tie keeps the focus off his grammar? The tie that he is wearing.


Seriously Frivolous said...

I am forever haunted by morose Eugene Meese telling us the utter uselessness of the word "that". To this day, I chop it out of any copy I edit.

Thanks, Genie!

Steve & Megan said...

Eugene gave our class the same lecture. This is really a matter of style. I can't say that it's right or wrong.

I do have to thank Eugene for inviting the Daily Snooze editor to tell us about his which hunts at the Snooze. He said that if we weren't sure whether we should use "that" or "which", we should almost always use "that".