Arrant Pedantry

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Which Hunting

I meant to blog about this several weeks ago, when the topic came up in my corpus linguistics class from Mark Davies, but I didn’t have time then. And I know the that/which distinction has been done to death, but I thought this was an interesting look at the issue that I hadn’t seen before.

For one of our projects in the corpus class, we were instructed to choose a prescriptive rule and then examine it using corpus data, determining whether the rule was followed in actual usage and whether it varied over time, among genres, or between the American and British dialects. One of my classmates (and former coworkers) chose the that/which rule for her project, and I found the results enlightening.

She searched for the sequences “[noun] that [verb]” and “[noun] which [verb],” which aren’t perfect—they obviously won’t find every relative clause, and they’ll pull in a few non-relatives—but the results serve as a rough measurement of their relative frequencies. What she found is that before about the 1920s, the two were used with nearly equal frequency. That is, the distinction did not exist. After that, though, which takes a dive and that surges. The following chart shows the trends according to Mark Davies’ Corpus of Historical American English and his Google Books N-grams interface.

It’s interesting that although the two corpora show the same trend, Google Books lags a few decades behind. I think this is a result of the different style guides used in different genres. Perhaps style guides in certain genres picked up the rule first, from whence it disseminated to other style guides. And when we break out the genres in COHA, we see that newspapers and magazines lead the plunge, with fiction and nonfiction books following a few decades later, though use of which is apparently in a general decline the entire time. (NB: The data from the first decade or two in COHA often seems wonky; I think the word counts are low enough in those years that strange things can skew the numbers.)

Proportion of "which" by genres

The strange thing about this rule is that so many people not only take it so seriously but slander those who disagree, as I mentioned in this post. Bryan Garner, for instance, solemnly declares—without any evidence at all—that those who don’t follow the rule “probably don’t write very well,” while those who follow it “just might.”[1] (This elicited an enormous eye roll from me.) But Garner later tacitly acknowledges that the rule is an invention—not by the Fowler brothers, as some claim, but by earlier grammarians. If the rule did not exist two hundred years ago and was not consistently enforced until the 1920s or later, how did anyone before that time ever manage to write well?

I do say enforced, because most writers do not consistently follow it. In my research for my thesis, I’ve found that changing “which” to “that” is the single most frequent usage change that copy editors make. If so many writers either don’t know the rule or can’t apply it consistently, it stands to reason that most readers don’t know it either and thus won’t notice the difference. Some editors and grammarians might take this as a challenge to better educate the populace on the alleged usefulness of the rule, but I take it as evidence that it’s just not useful. And anyway, as Stan Carey already noted, it’s the commas that do the real work here, not the relative pronouns. (If you’ve already read his post, you might want to go and check it out again. He’s added some updates and new links to the end.)

And as I noted in my previous post on relatives, we don’t observe a restrictive/nonrestrictive distinction with who(m) or, for that matter, with relative adverbs like where or when, so at the least we can say it’s not a very robust distinction in the language and certainly not necessary for comprehension. As with so many other useful distinctions, its usefulness is taken to be self-evident, but the evidence of its usefulness is less than compelling. It seems more likely that it’s one of those random things that sometimes gets grammaticalized, like gender or evidentiality. (Though it’s not fully grammaticalized, because it’s not obligatory and is not a part of the natural grammar of the language, but is a rule that has to be learned later.)

Even if we just look at that and which, we find a lot of exceptions to the rule. You can’t use that as the object of a preposition, even when it’s restrictive. You can’t use it after a demonstrative that, as in “Is there a clear distinction between that which comes naturally and that which is forced, even when what’s forced looks like the real thing?” (I saw this example in COCA and couldn’t resist.) And Garner even notes “the exceptional which”, which is often used restrictively when the relative clause is somewhat removed from its noun.[2] And furthermore, restrictive which is frequently used in conjoined relative clauses, such as “Eisner still has a huge chunk of stock options—about 8.7 million shares’ worth—that he can’t exercise yet and which still presumably increase in value over the next decade,” to borrow an example from Garner.[3]

Something that linguistics has taught me is that when your rule is riddled with exceptions and wrinkles, it’s usually sign that you’ve missed something important in its formulation. I’ll explain what I think is going on with that and which in a later post.

  1. [1] Garner’s Modern American Usage, 3rd ed., s.v. “that. A. And which.”
  2. [2] S.v. “Remote Relatives. B. The Exceptional which.”
  3. [3] S.v. “which. D. And which; but which..”

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Distinctions, Useful and Otherwise

In a recent New York Times video interview, Steven Pinker touched on the topic of language change, saying, “I think that we do sometimes lose distinctions that it would be nice to preserve—disinterested to mean ‘impartial’ as opposed to ‘bored’, for example.”

He goes on to make the point that language does not degenerate, because it constantly replenishes itself—a point which I agree with—but that line caught the attention of Merriam-Webster’s Peter Sokolowski, who said, “It’s a useful distinction, but why pick a problematic example?” I responded, “I find it ironic that such a useful distinction is so rarely used. And its instability undermines the claims of usefulness.”

What Mr. Sokolowski was alluding to was the fact that the history of disinterested is more complicated than the simple laments over its loss would indicate. If you’re unfamiliar with the usage controversy, it goes something like this: disinterested originally meant ‘impartial’ or ‘unbiased’, and uninterested originally meant ‘bored’, but now people have used disinterested to mean ‘bored’ so much that you can’t use it anymore, because too many people will misunderstand you. It’s an appealing story that encapsulates prescriptivists’ struggle to maintain important aspects of the language in the face of encroaching decay. Too bad it’s not really true.

I won’t dive too deeply into the history of the two words—the always-excellent Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage spends over two pages on the topic, revealing a surprisingly complex history—but suffice it to say that disinterested is, as Peter Sokolowski mildly put it, “a problematic example”. The first definition the OED gives for disinterested is “Without interest or concern; not interested, unconcerned. (Often regarded as a loose use.)” The first citation dates to about 1631. The second definition (the correct one, according to traditionalists) is “Not influenced by interest; impartial, unbiased, unprejudiced; now always, Unbiased by personal interest; free from self-seeking. (Of persons, or their dispositions, actions, etc.)” Its first citation, however, is from 1659. And uninterested was originally used in the “impartial” or “unbiased” senses now attributed to disinterested, though those uses are obsolete.

It’s clear from the OED’s citations that both meanings have existed side-by-side from the 1600s. So there’s not so much a present confusion of the two words as a continuing, three-and-a-half-century-long confusion. And for good reason, too. The positive form interested is the opposite of both disinterested and uninterested, and yet nobody complains that we can’t use it because readers won’t be sure whether we mean “having the attention engaged” or “being affected or involved”, to borrow the Merriam-Webster definitions. If we can use interested to mean two different things, why do we need two different words to refer to the opposite of those things?

And as my advisor, Don Chapman, has written, “When gauging the usefulness of a distinction, we need to keep track of two questions: 1) is it really a distinction, or how easy is the distinction to grasp; 2) is it actually useful, or how often do speakers really use the distinction.”[1] Chapman adds that “often the claim that a distinction is useful seems to rest on little more than this: if the prescriber can state a clear distinction, the distinction is considered to be desirable ipso facto.” He then asks, “But how easy is the distinction to maintain in actual usage?” (151).

From the OED citations, it’s clear that speakers have never been able to fully distinguish between the two words. Chapman also pointed out to me that the two prefixes in question, dis- and un-, do not clearly indicate one meaning or the other. The meanings of the two words comes from different meanings of the root interested, not the prefixes, so the assignment of meaning to form is arbitrary and must simply be memorized, which makes the distinction difficult for many people to learn and maintain. And even those who do learn the distinction do not employ it very frequently. I know this is anecdotal, but it seems to me that disinterested is far more often mentioned than it is used. I can’t remember the last time I spotted a genuine use of disinterested in the wild.

I think it’s time we dispel the myth that disinterested and uninterested epitomize a lost battle to preserve useful distinctions. The current controversy over its use is not indicative of current laxness or confusion, because there was never a time when people managed to fully distinguish between the two words. If anything, disinterested epitomizes the prescriptivist tendency to elegize the usage wars. The typical discussion of disinterested is often light on historical facts and heavy on wistful sighs over how we can no longer use a word that was perhaps never as useful as we would like to think it was.

  1. [1] Don Chapman, “Bad Ideas in the History of English Usage,” in Studies in the History of the English Language 5, Variation and Change in English Grammar and Lexicon: Contemporary Approaches, ed. Robert A. Cloutier, Anne Marie Hamilton-Brehm, William A. Kretzschmar Jr. (New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2010), 151