Arrant Pedantry

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Relative Pronoun Redux

A couple of weeks ago, Geoff Pullum wrote on Lingua Franca about the that/which rule, which he calls “a rule which will live in infamy”. (For my own previous posts on the subject, see here, here, and here.) He runs through the whole gamut of objections to the rule—that the rule is an invention, that it started as a suggestion and became canonized as grammatical law, that it has “an ugly clutch of exceptions”, that great writers (including E. B. White himself) have long used restrictive which, and that it’s really the commas that distinguish between restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses, as they do with other relative pronouns like who.

It’s a pretty thorough deconstruction of the rule, but in a subsequent Language Log post, he despairs of converting anyone, saying, “You can’t talk people out of their positions on this; they do not want to be confused with facts.” And sure enough, the commenters on his Lingua Franca post proved him right. Perhaps most maddening was this one from someone posting as losemygrip:

Just what the hell is wrong with trying to regularize English and make it a little more consistent? Sounds like a good thing to me. Just because there are inconsistent precedents doesn’t mean we can’t at least try to regularize things. I get so tired of people smugly proclaiming that others are being officious because they want things to make sense.

The desire to fix a problem with the language may seem noble, but in this case the desire stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of the grammar of relative pronouns, and the that/which rule, rather than regularizing the language and making it a little more consistent, actually introduces a rather significant irregularity and inconsistency. The real problem is that few if any grammarians realize that English has two separate systems of relativization: the wh words and that, and they work differently.

If we ignore the various prescriptions about relative pronouns, we find that the wh words (the pronouns who/whom/whose and which, the adverbs where, when, why, whither, and whence, and the where + preposition compounds) form a complete system on their own. The pronouns who and which distinguish between personhood or animacy—people and sometimes animals or other personified things get who, while everything else gets which. But both pronouns function restrictively and nonrestrictively, and so do most of the other wh relatives. (Why occurs almost exclusively as a restrictive relative adverb after reason.)

With all of these relative pronouns and adverbs, restrictiveness is indicated with commas in writing or a small pause in speech. There’s no need for a lexical or morphological distinction to show restrictiveness with who or where or any of the others—intonation or punctuation does it all. There are a few irregularities in the system—for instance, which has no genitive form and must use whose or of which, and who declines for cases while which does not—but on the whole it’s rather orderly.

That, on the other hand, is a system all by itself, and it’s rather restricted in its range. It only forms restrictive relative clauses, and then only in a narrow range of syntactic constructions. It can’t follow a preposition (the book of which I spoke rather than *the book of that I spoke) or the demonstrative that (they want that which they can’t have rather than *they want that that they can’t have), and it usually doesn’t occur after coordinating conjunctions. But it doesn’t make the same personhood distinction that who and which do, and it functions as a relative adverb sometimes. In short, the distribution of that is a subset of the distribution of the wh words. They are simply two different ways to make relative clauses, one of which is more constrained.

Proscribing which in its role as a restrictive relative where it overlaps with that doesn’t make the system more regular—it creates a rather strange hole in the middle of the wh relative paradigm and forces speakers to use a word from a completely different paradigm instead. It actually makes the system irregular. It’s a case of missing the forest for the trees. Grammarians have looked at the distribution of which and that, misunderstood it, and tried to fix it based on their misunderstanding. But if they’d step back and look at the system as a whole, they’d see that the problem is an imagined one. If you think the system doesn’t make sense, the solution isn’t to try to hammer it into something that does make sense; the solution is to figure out what kind of sense it makes. And it makes perfect sense as it is.

I’m sure, as Professor Pullum was, that I’m not going to make a lot of converts. I can practically hear copy editors’ responses: But following the rule doesn’t hurt anything! Some readers will write us angry letters if we don’t follow it! It decreases ambiguity! To the first I say, of course it hurts, in that it has a cost that we blithely ignore: every change a copy editor makes takes time, and that time costs money. Are we adding enough value to the works we edit to recoup that cost? I once saw a proof of a book wherein the proofreader had marked every single restrictive which—and there were four or five per page—to be changed to that. How much time did it take to mark all those whiches for two hundred or more pages? How much more time would it have taken for the typesetter to enter those corrections and then deal with all the reflowed text? I didn’t want to find out the answer—I stetted every last one of those changes. Furthermore, the rule hurts all those who don’t follow it and are therefore judged as being sub-par writers at best or idiots at worst, as Pullum discussed in his Lingua Franca post.

To the second response, I’ve said before that I don’t believe we should give so much power to the cranks. Why should they hold veto power for everyone else’s usage? If their displeasure is such a problem, give me some evidence that we should spend so much time and money pleasing them. Show me that the economic cost of not following the rule in print is greater than the cost of following it. But stop saying that we as a society need to cater to this group and assuming that this ends the discussion.

To the last response: No, it really doesn’t. Commas do all the work of disambiguation, as Stan Carey explains. The car which I drive is no more ambiguous than The man who came to dinner. They’re only ambiguous if you have no faith in the writer’s or editor’s ability to punctuate and thus assume that there should be a comma where there isn’t one. But requiring that in place of which doesn’t really solve this problem, because the same ambiguity exists for every other relative clause that doesn’t use that. Note that Bryan Garner allows either who or that with people; why not allow either which or that with things? Stop and ask yourself how you’re able to understand phrases like The house in which I live or The woman whose hair is brown without using a different word to mark that it’s a restrictive clause. And if the that/which rule really is an aid to understanding, give me some evidence. Show me the results of an eye-tracking study or fMRI or at least a well-designed reading comprehension test geared to show the understanding of relative clauses. But don’t insist on enforcing a language-wide change without some compelling evidence.

The problem with all the justifications for the rule is that they’re post hoc. Someone made a bad analysis of the English system of relative pronouns and proposed a rule to tidy up an imagined problem. Everything since then has been a rationalization to continue to support a flawed rule. Mark Liberman said it well on Language Log yesterday:

This is a canonical case of a self-appointed authority inventing a grammatical theory, observing that elite writers routinely violate the theory, and concluding not that the theory is wrong or incomplete, but that the writers are in error.

Unfortunately, this is often par for the course with prescriptive rules. The rule is taken a priori as correct and authoritative, and all evidence refuting the rule is ignored or waved away so as not to undermine it. Prescriptivism has come a long way in the last century, especially in the last decade or so as corpus tools have made research easy and data more accessible. But there’s still a long way to go.

Update: Mark Liberman has a new post on the that/which rule which includes links to many of the previous Language Log posts on the subject.

15 Responses to Relative Pronoun Redux

  1. Eugene says:

    Your explanation of the “wh- system” and the “that system” is probably the most useful thing I’ve read on this topic. We do have competing systems with overlapping functions. There’s no need to over-regulate it by arbitrarily deciding that one pattern is correct and the other incorrect.
    Another case is the matter of “have got” that was recently discussed on Grammar Girl. http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/have-got-grammar.aspx
    Commenters were all bent out of shape, thinking that “I’ve got” is wrong because it means the same thing as “I have.” Now, I wouldn’t automatically concede that the meaning or use of the two expressions is exactly the same, but even if that were true, one is a present perfect and one is a stative. They represent two systems that overlap in meaning, but they probably differ in function, at least potentially.

  2. Thanks, Eugene. I’m glad you found it useful.

    “Have” versus “have got” is a pretty good comparison. They overlap considerably, but not exactly. But that’s no reason to eliminate the overlap and force them into some sort of complementary distribution.

  3. Warsaw Will says:

    A couple of points – I think this where the EFL/ESL approach to grammar is far superior to traditional grammar teaching – we tell students they have a choice between both ‘who’ and ‘that’ and ‘which’ and ‘that’ in defining (restrictive) relative clauses, and take a much more realistic (descriptive) attitude to other ‘controversial’ areas such as the use of ‘whom’ and personal pronouns.

    But I’m not so sure about ‘have got’. In British English at least, I would argue that it is simply an idiomatic version of ‘have’ for possession (in the grammatical sense). In British learner’s dictionaries it is listed under ‘have’, not ‘get’. Once you see it as it as the present perfect of ‘get’ you get into all sorts of problems, for example that it has something to do with ‘obtaining’ something, which is of course nonsense. ‘She’s got red hair and three beautiful children’. ‘Have got’ is not simply a tense of ‘get’ in this use. We can’t use continuous forms, and for past and future we have (got) to revert to ‘have’; I can’t see that ‘have got’ in this sense is any less stative than possessive ‘have’. Funnily enough this is something foreign learners seem to ‘get’ much better than some native speakers I’ve seen on language forums who start trying to connect it with ‘get’.

  4. John Lawler says:

    Welcome to the ranks of Christmas that/which rule posters. Somehow, it seems to have become a tradition, one way or another.
    Here’s my own entry, from long long ago. Sometimes repetition works.

    And, who knows? Maybe the horse will sing.

  5. Warsaw Will: I think you’re right that it’s just an alternative to “have”, though it’s not just for possession. At least in the US, it works for obligation too: “I have to go” == “I’ve got to go”. But the point is that they overlap, and there’s no need to concoct a rule to tell you when to use one or the other.

    John: I hadn’t realized it was a Christmas tradition, though it appears one of my posts on it last year was just two days before Christmas. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Eugene says:

    Having read John Lawler’s excellent entry at least once previously and again today, I still think that Arrant Pedantry framed the issue in a useful way. Part of this blog/comment process is about thinking things through.
    Warsaw Will has got some good points. “Has got” is idiomatic and may be used in ways that don’t seem like they are in perfect aspect. Still, its historical origin is the perfect construction, and that’s really the point I wanted to make. If a perfective situation and a state overlap in meaning, that’s not surprising.
    Now, if I’d said that Will has made some good points, or has suggested some good ideas, those would be in perfect aspect, so maybe “has got” isn’t so far from perfect.
    On the other hand, the North American use of “have gotten” is clearly perfective, so maybe that’s what the got/gotten distinction is really about.
    On the language pedagogy of that/which, I agree that ESOL teacher’s are pragmatic and descriptive even while steering students toward standard, uncontroversial uses. I certainly wouldn’t teach language learners an absolute “rule” like that=restrictive and which=unrestrictive. However, if you acknowledge that “that” is always restrictive while non-restrictive inanimates usually take “which,” you can see that the zombie that/which rule could be a useful compensation strategy for language learners. It won’t cause any errors in their production. As they read more at more advanced levels, they’ll discover that good writers use “which” restrictively, and they’ll incorporate that usage into their internal grammars.

  7. Warsaw Will says:

    @Jonathan Owen – point taken, and of course “have got to” is widely used in the UK as well, it’s just that in EFL we see it as a different structure. But I think it rather strengthens my point about it being idiomatic and analogous to Present simple. Again we have to use forms of “have to”, not “got to” for past and future.

    @Eugene – it’s interesting that in BrE, where we don’t have the option of “gotten”, when we really do want to use “have got” as the Present perfect of “get”, we usually add something to make the meaning clear, for example “I’ve just got myself a new car”.

    And on the point of EFL students and “which” or “that”, I think it very much depends on the student’s first language. For example the words used as relative pronouns in Polish have other meanings (eg interrogatives) which correspond directly to “who” and “which”, so it’s easier for them to use “which”, but in French and Spanish, they are more like “who” and “that”, and I’ve heard that in France EFL students prefer to use “that”.

    And if I can blow my own trumpet, I also have a couple of posts on this:

    http://random-idea-english.blogspot.com/2011/11/which-hunting-season-is-upon-us-again.html

    http://random-idea-english.blogspot.com/2011/10/q-when-do-we-use-that-instead-of-who-or.html

  8. BZ says:

    You mentioned this only in passing, but I was taught that the reason is never why and the reason is never because. The reason can only be that. If you don’t want two thats in your sentence, you can omit the why-that. “The reason why x is because y” becomes “the reason x is that y”. Oddly enough, “the reason why x” sounds completely unremarkable to me, while “the reason is because y” grates. Do you know anything about these “rules,” and do they have anything to do with the which/that distinction?

  9. Eugene says:

    @BZ: I’d be interested in Motivated Grammar’s take on relative clauses modifying “reason,” too.
    In the meantime, I’ll take a crack at it.
    WHY: “the reason (why)…” is part of the wh- system. Notice that it is optional, not being a subject. Some consider the usage redundant in edited English.
    THAT: “the reason (that)…” is part of the that system discussed above. It, too, is optional.
    IS BECAUSE: This is a different type of structure. It’s not a relative clause like the other two. It’s a subject complement to a copula. So you have an NP: “the reason x” followed by a copula “is” and an adverbial phrase in the subject complement position, “because y.” Subject complements are usually locative prepositional phrases, adjective phrases, or noun phrases. I think what’s maybe a little unusual is to have what looks like an adverbial taking the role of a nominal. Maybe it could be considered a headless relative clause.
    Most of us would choose a that- clause in place of the because- clause.

  10. Jonathon says:

    BZ: They don’t directly have anything to do with the that/which distinction, except inasmuch as a lot of people have made bad rules about relative pronouns and adverbs because they don’t understand the system. You’re asking about two different usage questions: what sort of relative can follow reason, and what sort of subject complement structure it can take.

    As Eugene says, reason why is part of the wh system. Reason that is just a relative adverbial use of that. I believe that strictly speaking, the wh words are not optional. Deletion of a relative word only occurs where that is allowed, except in subject position. So insisting on reason that just adds another needless irregularity to the wh system of relativization, and insisting on plain reason with a zero relative adds even more irregularity.

    Reason is that/because is a separate issue, and Gabe Doyle covers it quite nicely at Motivated Grammar.

  11. Eugene says:

    Well, if you have a zero relativizer, there’s no way to know whether it would have been a wh- or a that, is there?
    The MWDEU entries on “REASON why” and “REASON is because” are excellent, as is the Motivated Grammar post you’ve linked to.
    Interesting. Thanks.

  12. BZ says:

    Thanks all for the info.

  13. John Cowan says:

    I concede that that that is bad, but that which doesn’t seem to me much better: the non-clunky form of fused relatives is what, producing they want what they can’t have.

    “And do they know the where and when? / And shall Trelawny die? / Here’s fifty thousand Cornish men / Will know the reason why!” How lame that rousing song would be without its final monosyllable.

  14. Eugene: The simpler analysis is to view the zero (deleted) relative as a subset of that, since it shares its syntactic constraints, and to say that the wh words are not deletable. Some linguists believe that relative that is just a form of complementizer that, which is also deletable. If they’re related, it would also explain why relative that has some of the weird syntactic constraints that it does—because it’s not truly a pronoun.

    John: My example was indeed pretty clunky, though the point stands that that which is grammatical while that that is not. Perhaps an example like That which does not kill us makes us stronger would have been better.

  15. Catterel says:

    I have just come across your site – what a treasure! I’m intrigued by ‘as’ as a relative pronoun, eg “Handsome is as handsome does”, “the fruit as maids call medlars” (even Shakespeare used it in this way). Is it purely dialect, where it’s still alive and thriving, is it a corruption of ‘that’, or is there any research available on this subject? Thank you for any information you may wish to share.

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