that which won’t die

On his blog yesterday (in “That which is restrictive”), Stan Carey reported that on Monday

The Guardian’s Mind your language blog firmly advocated the that/which pseudo-rule.

(that is, use the relativizer that for restrictive relatives, which for non-restrictives). Carey attacked the pseudo-rule on the Guardian’s blog and expanded his critique in yesterday’s (excellent) posting on his own blog. His wry postscript:

My comments at The Guardian helped convert at least one editor. This morning, I received confirmation of a second. One more, and I’ll call it a trend.

We can hope. Though some days it seems like a hopeless battle. Especially while the pseudo-rule propagates itself through the schools.

Back on August 5th, the school my grand-daughter goes to (Bowman International School, a Montessori school, in Palo Alto) sent out its weekly newsletter The Friday Note with an interview with Opal (each week, students from different classes are interviewed by the newsletter staff — some upper elementary school students), plus one with upper elementary students Tina and Henry, who reported:

I went to a Language Arts lesson and it was fun. We learned the difference between “that” and “which”. We were taught when it is appropriate to use “that” and “which”. You use “which” in a clause and you use “that” to describe something in detail. In math this week I did follow up work on mean, median and mode. Mean is when you add all the numbers in the set and divide the numbers in a set. Mean is another word for average. Median is where you line all the numbers in the set from least to greatest and you pick the number that lies in the middle. Mode is the most frequent number in the set.

The kids explain mean, median, and mode clearly, but the lesson on that and which is seriously balled up. It’s upsetting that Fowler’s Rule is being taught to elementary school kids as fact, and possibly more upsetting that the prescription seems to have been mangled in transmission; I’d guess that what the kids carried away from the lesson was only that there’s something wrong with which. Many sighs.


11 Responses to “that which won’t die”

  1. Jonathon Says:

    I’d say it’s definitely more upsetting that they’re being taught such a bungled version. Learning the rule accurately is a waste of time, in my opinion, but it won’t impair anyone’s writing. But this sort of teaching will probably just leave a lot of students with nervous cluelessness, as Geoffrey Pullum likes to call it.

  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    From Robert Coren on Google+:

    Several decades ago, my workplace had a tech writer who was a serious which-hunter, and she had so terrorized at least one of the developers that he produced a draft that avoided “which” entirely, using “that” even in non-restrictive clauses, resulting in pretty much unreadable, or at least incomprehensible, prose.

  3. John Lawler Says:

    I hope you’ve set Opal straight about the zombie which/that rule. If she needed straightening, that is. Can’t do much about the other kids,though (and in a Montessori school, at that — for shame!). *Sighs also*

  4. the ridger Says:

    OTOH, given that what she said was “You use “which” in a clause and you use “that” to describe something in detail.” she may only think they’re not interchangeable, not that “which” has ‘something wrong’ with it.

    That’s too bad, of course, but it’s not as bad as it could be.

    I just noticed today that David Crystal, in “Rediscover Grammar”, doesn’t address “that vs. which”, but he does say to use “who” instead of “which” for people…

  5. which/that « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] 10/19/11: that which won’t die (link): with a link to Stan Carey’s blog, and from there to John McIntyre  and Arrant […]

  6. substuff Says:

    They teach grammar at school, now? Cripes. I kind of enjoyed working it out for myself.

  7. That which is restrictive « Sentence first Says:

    […] Zwicky, following up on this post, laments what may be “a hopeless battle”. He supplies an example of the pseudo-rule being taught to school […]

  8. Punctuating relatives « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] misguided which-avoidance can lead to unfortunate results, as Robert Coren noted in a comment on one of my recent which postings: Several decades ago, my workplace had a tech writer who was a serious which-hunter, and she had so […]

  9. Notes from school « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] restrictive relativizer that) — despite the fact that at least one teacher in the school proscribes it. Readers of Language Log and this blog will remember that my linguistics crew deprecates this […]

  10. Annals of non-restrictive ‘that’ « Sentence first Says:

    […] Normally which does this job. (Which is also fine in restrictive clauses, by the way, despite the pseudo-rule that forbids it. The first link explains the […]

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