LABELS: COPY EDITING, GRAMMAR
Here’s a little reminder about “that” and “which”: Editing styles have some strict rules on their usage, but they’re not universal grammar rules, just a style thing.
Here’s the rule, according to the Associated Press Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style: “which” can’t be used for restrictive clauses. Only “that” can introduce restrictive clauses.
Restrictive clauses narrow down the things they refer to. Compare:
The hats that have feathers sell the best
The hats, which have feathers, sell the best.
In the first example, the clause beginning with “that” actually narrows down which hats we’re talking about. Only the ones that have feathers are being discussed. In the second example, all the hats are being referred to. The “which” clause lets us know that they all have feathers.
So a restrictive clause restricts -- narrows down or specifies -- its subject. A nonrestrictive clause does not: It can be lifted right out of the sentence without losing specificity of your subject.
And AP and Chicago agree that you can’t use “which” for a restrictive clause.
“The hats which have feathers sell the best.” That, according to the style guides, is wrong because the clause is supposed to be restrictive. How do we know that the writer meant this clause to be restrictive? The lack of commas. Commas set off nonrestrictive information. To the lack of commas around the clause makes it restrictive.
There’s some logic at the heart of the style rule: Most American English speakers usually use “which” only for nonrestrictive clauses, leaving the other job to “that.” You can also see that keeping these two separate can clear up the potential ambiguity of sentences like “The hats which have feathers will sell best.” (That is, if you doubt the writer’s punctuation skills, you couldn’t be sure whether she meant only the hats that have feathers sell best or whether she meant all the hats sell better than other merchandise and oh, by the way, they all have feathers.)
But unless you’re editing in one of those two styles, you don’t have to worry about this. In my experience, most people manage “that” and “which” clauses well, leaving no question as to what they meant.
The greatest thing about the writing craft that I ever read was in “I Feel Bad About My Neck,” by the late Nora Eprhon.
In that book, Ephron recalls a lesson from her high school journalism teacher, Charles O. Simms, on how to write a story lead – the first sentence or paragraph of a newspaper story.
“He writes the words ‘Who What Where When Why and How” on the blackboard,” Ephron recalled. “Then he dictates a set of facts to use that goes something like this: ‘Kenneth L. Peters, the principal of Beverly Hills High School, announced today that the faculty of the high school will travel to Sacramento on Thursday for a colloquium in new teaching methods. Speaking there will be anthropologist Margaret Mead and Robert Maynard Hutchins, the president of the Univesrity of Chicago.’
“We all sit at our typewriters and write a lead, most of us inverting the set of facts so that they read something like this, ‘Anthropologist Margaret Meand and University of Chicago President Robert Maynard Hutchins will address the faculty Thursday in Sacramento at a colloquium on new teaching methods, the principal of the high school Kenneth L. Peters announced today.’
“We turn in our leads. We’re very proud. Mr. Simms looks at what we’ve done and then tosses everything into the garbage. He says: ‘The lead of the story is “There will be no school Thursday.”’”
I wish I’d thought of that. I wish I could say that, as I was reading the assignment, I figured out the right answer before it was revealed. I did not.
If there’s ever been a better lesson about reader-serving writing, I’ve never found it.
LABELS: GRAMMAR, WORD CHOICE
Not long ago, I turned the car radio to a local NPR station and caught the second half of a story about computers writing poetry. The expert they quoted, whose name I didn’t catch, said he believed that he will live to see a computer become a top poet.
I had just seen the movie “Her,” in which a man falls in love with a highly sophisticated operating system. Its premise didn’t seem so implausible to me. With that movie fresh in my mind, neither did the idea of a computer that crafts words into art expressing the human experience.
And that’s when it hit me: My skill set will expire. If computers can write poetry, surely they’ll be able to do everything a copy editor does, probably better.
I had never worried about this much. Microsoft Word’s grammar checker certainly doesn’t make me feel threatened. The technology is weak and the information it's been fed is even weaker. For example, when I run the grammar checker on a document with the sentence “She is the oldest of the two,” the software flags it with the warning “Comparative use,” presumably because whoever programmed it was victim to the myth that superlatives like “oldest” can’t be used for groups of just two; for comparisons between two, the myth goes, you need the comparative “older.” That’s not true. But don’t tell grammar checker that.
I’ve seen a lot of ads lately for Grammarly, a program that claims to be much better at fixing your grammar. Because that company is trying to sell itself as, well, worth buying, it seems better positioned to someday put copy editors like me in the unemployment line.
But has that someday arrived? To find out, I entered some text in the Try Grammarly Now box on its website, which was supposed to show how well the program can fix whatever writing you paste into the box. I wanted to know how good Grammarly was at assessing not grammar errors per se, but poor writing choices. So I entered the sentence:
“While Joe attended Harvard, he never went on to a successful career.”
The word “while” is a good example of why copy editors have value. It can mean either “during the time that” or “although.” But it creates problems because people often use it in the “although” sense not realizing it could be misread to mean “during the time that.”
So in this sentence, “While Joe attended Harvard” momentarily sounds like we’re going to talk about something that happened when Joe was a student. But the second of half of the sentence describes what happened after he graduated. So that “while” could lead some writers down the wrong path and is exactly the type of thing I would fix.
Would Grammarly catch it? I pasted the whole sentence into the box and hit “Check your text.”
Here’s Grammarly’s analysis: “This text is too short. Grammarly needs more context to accurately detect mistakes.”
Looks like I won’t be applying for that greeter job at Walmart just yet.
LABELS: comma, COPY EDITING, GRAMMAR
Here’s something I see a lot of in my copy editing work: He’ll interview author Rob Peters and an accountant Jane Farrell.
Or sometimes it will look like this: He’ll interview author, Rob Peters, and an accountant, Jane Farrell.
But almost never will it look like this: He’ll interview author Rob Peters and an accountant, Jane Farrell.
As you may have guessed, that’s unfortunate because the last one is actually correct.
Knowing when to use commas in these situations lies in understanding appositives. And the easiest way to think of an appositive is as a renaming of something just said:
… my husband, Ted …
… the teacher, a great person ...
... your car, a 2009 Acura …
An appositive is a noun phrase that stands in apposition to another, where “apposition” means “a grammatical construction in which two usually adjacent nouns having the same referent stand in the same syntactical relation to the rest of a sentence.” (You can see why I led with the CliffsNotes version.)
Simply put, if you’re just throwing in a name or another noun that repeats another noun, that's an appositive. An aside. An extra parenthetical bit thrown in. And once we undertsand that, the “Chicago Manual of Style’s” advice is clear:
“A word, abbreviation, phrase, or clause that is in apposition to a noun is set off by commas if it is nonrestrictive -- that is, omittable, containing supplementary rather than essential information. If it is restrictive -- essential to the noun it belongs to -- no comma should appear.
“The committee chair, Gloria Ruffolo, called for a resolution.
“Stanley Groat, president of the cporporation, spoke first. …
“My older sister, Betty, taught me the alphabet.
“My sister Enid lets me hold her doll. (I have two sisters.)”
See how in the first sister example the lack of commas tells us that the speaker only has one older sister? And see how in the second sister example the lack of commas tells us that Enid is just one of two or more sisters?
Now think about “the baker Rob Peters” vs. “the baker, Rob Peters.”In the first, you’re using the name to make clear which baker you’re talking about. In the second, you’re implying that the reader already knows that you’re talking about one specific baker and that, by the way, his name is Rob Peters.
Ditto that for:
“I read the book, ‘Blue Skies” vs. “I read the book “Blue Skies.’”
In the first one, it’s clear you’ve already established with the reader that you’re talking about a single, specific book, even if you haven’t named it yet: “I went to the store. I thumbed through a book I couldn’t put down. I bought it, along with a music CD. When I read the book, “Blue Skies,” it changed my life.”
But in the second one, you’re probably referencing the book for the first time.
Again, it all boils down to whether the second noun phrase is a mere repeat of the first or whether they’re working together in a way that makes them inseparable.