Tuesday, August 30, 2011

That vs. Which

A recent reader query:
I'm an attorney and I sometimes have trouble deciding when to use "that" and when to use "which" in legal briefs. If you had any insight that would be greatly appreciated.
Good question. These so-called "relative conjunctions" can be a bit hard to master at first, but with a little explanation and experience using them correctly, they quickly become second nature.

First, the technical answer. If you're familiar with grammar rules, it should make sense:
As a general rule the relative conjunction which introduces nonrestrictive clauses; that introduces restrictive clauses.
In lay terms: If dropping the clause would change the meaning, use that without commas.


that are off-color do not belong in the magazine.
This joke,
which is off-color, does not belong in the magazine.

I can see where this becomes important in legal briefs, since each one sets up a different category: restrictive (that; one particular case or class of cases) and nonrestrictive (which; supplemental or nonessential information).

Bryan Garner, in his exhaustive and authoritative Garner's Modern American Usage, offers these helpful guidelines:
First, if you cannot omit the clause without changing the basic meaning, the clause is restrictive; use that without a comma. Second, if you can omit the clause without changing the basic meaning, the clause is nonrestrictive; use a comma plus which. Third, if you ever find yourself using a which that doesn't follow a comma (or a preposition), it probably needs to be a that.
I hope that information, which I've gleaned over years of editing, is helpful to you.

"Conjunction Junction School House Rock!" T-shirt available at CrazyDogTshirt.com

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Apostrophize II

A reader who found this blog by searching for "apostrophize" sent the following example of the word's use in "an old McGruffey Reader":

An exchange paper thus apostrophizes on marriage:
Marriage is like a flaming candle light,
Placed in the window on a summer night,
Inviting all the insects of the air
To come and singe their pretty winglets there.
Those that are out butt heads against the pane,
And those within butt to get out again.

The reader, Tom, wrote: "The first comment in your entry for 'apostrophize,' and this selection from the reader, might enhance one's understanding of the meaning of the word. Or at least generate a smile."

It definitely brought a smile to my face. Thanks, Tom!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Wildebeest vs. Wildebeests

Lions and tigers and wildebeests…

Or is that wildebeest?

I received an email this week from a reader who wondered about the rules for pluralizing animals. He was concerned about the inconsistency in "millions of wildebeest, zebras, and antelope." Here's how I answered:

Don't sweat it too much. The English language is a hodge-podge of words borrowed and adapted from other languages. (For example hodge-podge is a variant of hotchpotch, a word from 1583 that stems from hochepot, an even older Anglo-French word.) That means there's no single answer to plurals for nouns, including animals.

As you know, standard plurals end in "s": cats, dogs, snakes. There are also non-standard plurals that we are all familiar with: deer, mice. Then there are the ones that fall in the middle, such as wildebeest/wildebeests. Both plural forms for wildebeest are acceptable.

How to decide which one to use? In my office we follow the preferred plural form as listed in Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary. If the plural is non-standard, then the definition lists the preferred plural first and variants after. In the wildebeest definition, it says: pl wildebeests also wildebeest. So we use wildebeests as the plural. Similarly, we would use antelope for the plural form.

My advice is to choose a dictionary to follow and consistently apply the preferred plural.

"Wildebeest" T-shirt available at RedBubble.com

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Staunch vs. Stanch

Little Edie knows best.

As she spells out in this terrific clip from Grey Gardens, Little Edie is a staunch woman–firm and steadfast.

Stanch is a verb: to stop or check the flow of, as in stanch the bleeding.

This post is dedicated to my dear, staunch friend Andy.

"Staunch" T-shirt available at CafePress.