Related relatives: that, which, who

rogersgeorge on March 31st, 2012

Hebrew has a word, asher (accent on the second syllable, so ah-Sher), loosely translated at the back of a Hebrew grammar I have, as “that, which, who,” a woefully oversimplified definition of this complex word, but it fits perfectly as the title of today’s lesson. These three words are easy to get wrong in English. But when you get these three words right, you improve your writing.

That

You can use that in a whole bunch of ways. Mainly it’s a relative pronoun. It shows some connection between two things. Use it when the connection is important to the sentence. Do not use “which.”

Here is the motorcycle that my brother rides.

That is also a demonstrative: That man is riding a motorcycle. I remember my English teacher used to demonstrate multiple uses of “that” with this sentence:

That “that” that that man said was wrong.

The first and last are demonstratives, the third one is relative, and the one in quotes is a noun.

Which

Use which when the connection is not important to the structure of the sentence—when you have an aside. It is usually right after a comma.

Correct: Bob’s motorcycle, which is the black one, is a Harley.

Incorrect: Here is the motorcycle which my brother rides.

A lot of people use which when that will do, and I’ll probably never win this battle, but still, don’t. It’s pretentious.

Who

Use who when you refer to people; use that when you refer to things.

Correct: The tough-looking guy who just climbed onto his motorcycle is my brother.

Incorrect: The tough-looking guy that just climbed onto his motorcycle is my brother.

There you have it. In case you are wondering, my brother really does ride, and his bike is a Harley. Here he is, taking my wife for a ride.

Taken several years ago in Wisconsin

 

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The sin of pretentiousness

rogersgeorge on December 22nd, 2011

When you write to explain something, your writing should focus your reader’s attention on the content, not on the writing, and not on you. Business English has become contaminated with pretentiousisms (a new word, invented by me, and seen here for the first time!), words that are fancier than necessary, and sometimes incorrect. People insert them to sound more erudite.  Here are a few of my favorite pretentiousisms. Don’t use them.

Using French is either pretentious or funny.

Prior when you mean previous. “Prior” implies greater importance, such as being a prerequisite for what follows. “Previous” refers to something that came first. For example I should say “The previous comic strip was funny, but I cannot quote it without prior written permission.”

Which when you mean that. This is something that Microsoft’s grammar checker generally gets right, by the way. Use “which” when you make an aside, and prefix it with a comma. Use “that” when you’re adding necessary information about something. For example you should say “The lecture that the professor gave yesterday was about the concept of free will, which I know nothing about.” Here’s the rule of thumb: ask if “that” works in the sentence. if it does, don’t use “which.”

Those when you mean the. Bad: “Those people who drive fancy cars are being pretentious.” Better: “The people who drive fancy…” Best: “People who drive fancy…” You might say that you want to more strongly point out whom you are referring to. No need; you make the point just fine with “the” or nothing. (You should be careful of generalizations anyway.)

Get your plurals right. Don’t use artificial Latin endings. Perhaps the most common if these is the plural of process, in spoken English. Don’t say “processees” (processese?) The plural of “process” is plain old “processes,” accent on the first syllable. People Latinize plurals on other words that end in -is and -es, such as “premise.” Be careful, though. Some words do have a Latin plural, “analysis” for example.

Another plural that a lot of folks mess up is the plural of “incident.” It’s “incidents,” not “incidences.”

Be careful of instant and instance.  “Instant” a measure of time, “instance” is an example of something.  The plurals are “instants” and instances.” Don’t make the plural of “instant” into “instantses” just to add a syllable.

The word “different” is often unnecessary. Usually you can leave it out. “There are two different ways to get there from here” means the same thing as “There are two ways to get there from here.” Leave out “different.” This one is a pet peeve of a fellow curmudgeon, Jim Murray, whom I worked with at Gateway 2000 many years ago. Hi, Jim!

Using myself when you mean me. Use “myself” only when you have already referred to yourself in the sentence. (Note that this applies to “you” and “yourself,” too.) Here is an example of the wrong usage by someone who ought to know better, Michael Shirmer, the founding editor of Skeptic magazine, in his book, The Believing Brain:

Good point. But the problem for both Dawkins and myself is our chauvinism. As Carl Sagan used to say, we are carbon chauvinists.

Why didn’t he write “…the problem for both Dawkins and me…”? I haven’t asked him, but I’ll suspect that Dr. Shirmer felt that “me” was too casual. In other words, not high-falootin’ enough. The context (page 198, by the way) is a discussion of the likelihood of encounters with extraterrestrials, so here’s a picture. Both Dawkins and Shirmer say we don’t have any extraterrestrials on earth, and I’m inclined to agree with them.

Picture used without permission. If you own it, I'll take it down and use something else.

Expect another post on pretentiousness. This list is merely items that came to mind this evening.