Mail    Print   Share Share

Excerpt: Grammar Snobs are Great Big Meanies

A Guide to Language for Fun and Spite

- March 29, 2006

June Casagrande, author of Grammar Snobs are Great Big Meanies, writes the humorous A Word, Please language column and has worked as a reporter, editor, copy editor and proofreader. On Thursday, May 4, she'll be teaching our course, "Practical Grammar and Style Tips," at our home offices in New York. All this, despite her dearth of education.

Here's an excerpt from her book:



Chapter 20

How to Drop Out of High School in the Ninth Grade and Still Make Big Bucks Telling People How to Use Good Grammar

"That" versus "Which"

How to drop out of high school in the ninth grade and still make big bucks telling others how to use good grammar:

Step 1: Drop out of high school.

Step 2: Party for four or five years.

Step 3: Enroll in college. (Note: This only works at Florida public universities and possibly Yale if your dad went there.)

Step 4: Spend four years absolutely certain that you’re the only one there whose brain doesn’t contain encyclopedias’ worth of accumulated knowledge.

Step 5: Get really mad when friends who learned you dropped out of high school say, "Pfft! I hardly went. You didn’t miss anything."

Step 6: Graduate.

Step 7: Bounce around in bad sales jobs for years before applying for a copy-editing job.

Step 8: Realize the night before your copy-editing test that you don’t know anything about copy editing.

Step 9: Cram like you haven’t crammed since you realized you were completely unprepared for even the most lackluster state university.

Step 10: Continue to bluff your way through journalism and editing careers until one day you find yourself actually bossing around legendary journalist Robert Scheer.

Step 11: Quit in a huff.

Step 12: Come crawling back two years later to a job schlepping city council stories in Newport Beach.

Step 13: Quit in a huff, but not such a big huff that they don’t keep running your grammar column on a freelance basis.

Step 14: Pitch a grammar book.

Step 15: Realize you’re completely unprepared to write a book on such an impossibly difficult subject.

Step 16: Cram like you haven’t crammed since the last time you had to cram like you’d never crammed before.

Step 17: Notice during the course of your cramming what an inexcusable crock of bull the state of grammar rules are in today; realize that much of your years-long insecurity was for nothing.

Step 18: Point out in your book that the grammar emperors wear no clothes.

Step 19: Spend the rest of your years lounging on the beach at Waikiki.

Going through college with just an eighth-grade education had a lot of obvious drawbacks: no blurry prom night to regret, no popular cheerleaders to resent, no experience with soul-dead teachers determined to snuff the love of learning out of each and every student. But in one way, missing all these golden moments gave me a powerful edge, especially in the area of language learning. You see, to survive in college, I couldn’t afford not to ask stupid questions. Hiding my ignorance was never an option. On the contrary, I showed my ass more than Harvey Keitel. I spent four years doing things like sitting in algebra class asking, "What’s an equation?" and sitting in advanced poli-sci classes asking, "How does the electoral college work?" In other words, I spent four years proving that if you really think there’s no such thing as a stupid question, you’re just not trying hard enough.

As a result, I became desensitized to humiliation -- the very weapon that the grammar snobs use to keep the rest of us living in fear. Sure, just like everybody else I felt stupid that I’ve never really understood the difference between "that" and "which," but I didn’t let this shame stop me from confessing my ignorance repeatedly to colleagues until eventually one told me to look it up. And this shame didn’t stop me from calling that same old friend a year later and announcing, in a panic, "I’ve got a copy-editing test tomorrow and I looked up ‘that versus which’ and I still need help." That final humiliation seems to have done the trick, because by the end of the night I got it. By the next day I actually passed this portion of the copy-editing test. And now that I finally get it, I can see where a major source of my confusion came from: merry old England.

Consider the following oh-so-British-sounding sentence: The college which I attend is better than the college which you attend. This use of "which" is found in every rung of British English, from the poorest Cockney flower girl all the way up to classic Monty Python sketches. It’s not my place to tell users of the King’s English how to, well, use the King’s English. Perhaps the above sentence would be considered correct over there, even though the Oxford English Grammar seems to suggest that this construction is wrong on both sides of the pond. Or perhaps one could argue that Oxford leaves just enough gray area to allow the Brits to "which" themselves every which way. Again, not my place to say.

But here’s what American users might want to know: "Which" sets off what are called "nonessential" or "nonrestrictive" clauses. (It’s the same principle as the one we learned about in chapter 10 regarding how to use commas.) In simpler English, "nonessential" or "nonrestrictive" clauses are simply clauses that can be lifted right out of a sentence without changing its primary point. The college, which you are attending, admits anyone who can spell her own name. The main point of the sentence is that the college admits just about anyone. The fact that you are currently attending it is an extra bit of information, an aside. Everything in between the commas can be surgically removed from the sentence without changing the simple point that the college admits flunkies.

These "nonessential" clauses should always be set off with commas: A comma always comes before "which." These clauses can come in the middle of a sentence, as we saw above, or at the end. "It’s not a very selective college, which is why you got in." So while "which" is for nonessential information set off with commas, "that" is for the other stuff—ideas essential to understanding a sentence’s main point. AP says that an "essential" or "restrictive" clause "so restricts the meaning of the word or phrase that its absence would lead to a substantially different interpretation of what the author meant."

Revisiting my example of Brit-speak above, "The college which I attend is better than the college which you attend," try cutting out the stuff introduced by each "which." You end up with, "The college is better than the college." Clearly, the points cut out were integral to the main idea of the sentence, which is why that stuff should have been introduced by "thats" instead of "whiches." "The college that I attend is better than the college that you attend" is the correct way to go. Of course, you may be asking, why not just say, "The college I attend is better than the college you attend"? Isn’t it just as good, if not better, without any "thats" at all? In short, that’s a separate question. When choosing between "which" and "that," apply the nonessential clause rule. When choosing between "that" and no "that," apply your own judgment and know that there’s lots of room for personal taste. The most important question is whether omitting "that" could send the reader in the wrong direction.

A sentence like, "The president said the Pledge of Allegiance should remain unchanged," would be a lot better with a "that," as in, "The president said that the Pledge of Allegiance should remain unchanged." Without the "that," the first thing the reader sees is, "The president said the Pledge of Allegiance." Some verbs that, according to the Associated Press, beg for a "that" after them include "advocate," "assert," "contend," "declare," "estimate," "make clear," "point out," "propose," and "state." Words and terms that sometimes beg for a "that" before them include "after," "although," "because," "before," "in addition to," "until," and "while."

If you’re not sure, go ahead and use "that." And don’t fear the "whiches" anymore, either.

Aloha!

Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from Grammar Snobs are Great Big Meanies: A Guide to Language for Fun and Spite by June Casagrande. Copyright (c) 2006 by June Casagrande

> Send a letter to the editor
> Read more in our archives