Language: July 2005 Archives

'Which' and 'That'

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Language complainers like William Safire and Richard Lederer often complain about the misuse of 'which' and 'that'. In school I learned the standard SAT usage of these two terms, and it made complete sense to me, because in my dialect you just didn't use these terms the way some people do. Linguists who observe the way the English language really works (as opposed to how Safire and Lederer want it to work) point out that the so-called misuse is not a misuse. It's a normal part of the English language. Arnold Zwicky even claims that virtually everyone uses 'which' in exactly the ways the style manuals say not to, including the writers of those manuals.

Well, I want to say that there is something bad about this normal part of the English language. It is a stylistic issue, and it's one that conveys something about the speaker. It's not grammatically wrong. It does sound uppity, though. In my dialect, you would never say "hand me the phone which is on the table" unless you wanted to sound like a snob. You might say "hand me the phone that's on the table". You might say, "The phone, which is on the table, is not plugged in." You wouldn't really even use 'that' unless you needed it. "Hand me the phone on the table" is much better than either, but the one with 'that' sounds ok. The one with 'which' just sounds like the kind of thing you'd expect someone with lots of money and private tutors to say.

I often hear statements involving an acronym and then one of the terms the acronym stands for immediately after. So it might be something like talking about the NIV version of the Bible (New International Version version), the GOP party (Grand Old Party party_, the HIV virus (HIV: Human Immuno-deficiency Virus), your ATM card's PIN number (PIN: personal identification number), or the ATM machine itself (ATM: automated teller machine). See Wikipedia's entry on RAS Syndrome (RAS: Redundant Acronym Syndrome) for many more examples and further discussion of this phenomenon (though, as I will explain, I find their conclusion that this phenomenon is incorrect to be itself incorrect; they do go on and give justifications for doing the technically incorrect thing, but I don't even think it's right to say it's technically incorrect).

What I hear people saying frequently in such cases is that "NIV version" is redundant (or whatever example it might be; this isn't about Bible versions but about acronyms). In most of these cases, the final word that the acronym stands for is repeated immediately after the acroynm, and that's said to be repeating something that the meaning of teh acronym already contained. Therefore, it's redundant. I used to think this was the right thing to say. Now I'm not so sure. Is "NIV version" redundant? Is "HIV virus" redundant? Is "PIN number" redundant? I say no.

Adrian Warnock found the Oxford English Dictionary statement on the use of 'they' as a singular in contexts of unspecified gender:

The word they (with its counterparts them, their, and themselves) as a singular pronoun to refer to a person of unspecified sex has been used since at least the 16th century. In the late 20th century, as the traditional use of he to refer to a person of either sex came under scrutiny on the grounds of sexism, this use of they became more common. It is now generally accepted in contexts where it follows an indefinite pronoun such as anyone, no one, someone, or a person, as in anyone can join if they are a resident and each to their own. In other contexts, coming after singular nouns, the use of they is now common, though less widely accepted, especially in formal contexts. Sentences such as ask a friend if they could help are still criticized for being ungrammatical. Nevertheless, in view of the growing acceptance of they and its obvious practical advantages, they is used in this dictionary in many cases where he would have been used formerly.

Adrian's comments are also worth reading, as is his suggestion as to the best way to deal with one issue in gender translation. The translation he gives of the verse he considers is, I think, the best solution I've seen. It's certainly more fitting with standard spoken English, and it's just about the most common way to say this sort of thing even in the formal settings I often find myself in. Things are in flux with how positively to deal with it (though it's clear that the negative step of rejecting inclusive 'he' and so on is established), but singular 'they' is pretty much accepted in formal contexts enough of the time that I'd say it's grammatical not just in informal English.

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