by Daniel Sosnoski
Most editors and proofreaders likely think of themselves as being top-notch grammarians. It’s certainly the case that working in this field requires more than a passing familiarity with the rules of English and, depending on your specialty, you may have a strong command of style and composition, too.
Over time, you’ll notice the same errors occurring frequently among writers, and these tend to catch your eye because you’ve learned to spot them. Here’s a case in point:
Which which is that?
There’s little question that the use of which and that is confusing for the majority of speakers and writers. Properly using these words — specifically as pronouns — requires an understanding of restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses.
- The mummy that we saw in the tomb had been disturbed. [restrictive]
- The mummy, which we saw in the tomb, had been disturbed. [nonrestrictive]
The first example is termed restrictive because it’s describing one specific mummy, and there may be others but we’re just talking about this one. In the second case, the sense is more that the mummy had been molested, and parenthetically some additional information about its location is being added (and could be removed without significantly changing the meaning).
The problem you tend to see in text is:
- The mummy which we saw in the tomb had been disturbed.
This pattern is so common, in fact, that some descriptivists argue that it isn’t really a fault at all. Roy Copperud, in American Usage and Style: The Consensus (1980, Van Nostrand Reinhold, p. 376), surveyed a range of authorities and found that some would allow restrictive which as shown above without complaint. Up to about a century ago, this wasn’t such a contentious issue. A few experts argued for a rule, and H.W. Fowler codified it in the early 1900s (see The King’s English, 2nd ed., 1908). But what about the following case:
- The mummy, that we saw in the tomb, had been disturbed.
While this was used more in the past, most today would call it a blunder. The idea here isn’t so much that the words which and that are sharply distinguishable in terms of their function in such sentences as these, but rather the punctuation is what’s semantically salient. The commas could be replaced with parentheses in nonrestrictive cases, and the contents of the clause being set off could be removed easily.
As an editor, you’re usually paid to bring text into alignment with Standard English and observe these sorts of distinctions. Some, however, get overzealous and go on “which hunts,” eliminating nonrestrictive clauses where they should be left alone. Bryan Garner, in Garner’s Modern American Usage (2009, 3rd ed, Oxford University Press, p. 807), observes that “British writers have utterly bollixed the distinction between restrictive and nonrestrictive relative pronouns.”
The plot thickens
A related type of case exists with the terms such as and including. A common error to look for with these two is redundancy. For example:
- There were many ventriloquist dummies on the shelf, such as Charlie McCarthy, Mortimer Snerd, Lamb Chop, etc.
Here the etc. is unnecessary because such as when set off with a comma is nonrestrictive. Unlike the sense invoked when not set off:
- I could never love a puppet such as you.
For quite a long time, I tended to place the comma used in the ventriloquist example by ear. If the construction seemed to need it I added one. If there was one there I might have removed it, hewing mainly to euphony and cadence. Recently, though, this began to nag at me and I realized there was probably a rule here I needed to know.
One discussion of the matter by the editors at “The Chicago Manual of Style Online” explained it clearly as being a restrictive versus nonrestrictive question. Thus, the larger point raised here is the need to pay attention to that nagging feeling when you realize you’re winging something you probably need to research and nail down.
The known knowns
Another nagging feeling to watch for is the one that starts to warn you that a rule you’ve been enforcing for a long time may be unsupported. It might be a convention you’ve adopted from your general reading, it might be a mistaken suggestion in a style guide (rare, but it happens), or it might be a “zombie” bugbear remembered from high school English class (e.g., “avoid the passive voice”).
It was only a few years ago that the following usage rule that I’d been faithfully applying for years came to my attention as being largely bogus:
Reserve each other for paired items, and prefer one another for groups of three or more.
Here’s Copperud on that (ibid., p. 116):
Five critics and American Heritage agree that [these terms] are interchangeable, and that there is no point in the efforts to restrict the first to two and the second to three or more.
And Garner weighs in with a similar observation (ibid., p. 287):
Yet this 19th-century rule has often been undermined in the literature on usage…Careful writers will doubtless continue to observe the distinction, but no one else will notice.
It is virtually a given that there are a few such “rules” in your own toolkit. Attend to those nagging feelings when they bother you and confirm or correct your thinking with research. Guides like those mentioned above are good, as are online resources. Some of my favorites for this kind of inquiry are:
- Grammarist (for general grammar queries)
- World Wide Words (good for idioms and unusual phrases)
- Online Etymology Dictionary (when you want the historical origins of a term)
- Google Books Ngram Viewer (useful when comparing similar or contested terms)
After all, enforcing false rules is just as bad as failing to apply true ones. In addition to improving your eye and learning to spot more types of errors, periodically check your understanding of the rules you’re applying and ensure you’ve not gone astray.
Daniel Sosnoski is the author of Introduction to Japanese Culture and editor-in-chief of Chiropractic Economics magazine. He has been the staff editor for numerous medical associations and is the founding editor of the PubMed-indexed Journal of Clinical Lipidology. He currently belongs to the American Copy Editors Society.