That or Which, and Why: A Usage Guide for Thoughtful Writers and Editors

Stuart Hannabuss (Aberdeen Business School, Aberdeen, UK)

Library Review

ISSN: 0024-2535

Article publication date: 23 May 2008




Hannabuss, S. (2008), "That or Which, and Why: A Usage Guide for Thoughtful Writers and Editors", Library Review, Vol. 57 No. 5, pp. 396-398.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Rules we must have, says Evan Jenkins, but the best editor is an unpedantic pedant. We are all in it together is his message: he is not a mentor like Fowler, a lexicographer like Partridge, a style guru like Strunk, or an in‐house source like the New York Times Manual of Style and Usage or the Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors. Jenkins ran a language corner in the Columbia Journalism Review, and this along with his editorial experience on several US newspapers makes him an informed and perceptive guide to style and usage. This book is as much for the general reader as for the author and journalist. It is published simultaneously in New York and London but its content will almost certainly be of most interest to North American readers (and to anyone else interested in American English).

Bill Bryson wryly admits that his own Troublesome Words (various incarnations since 1984) really should have been called “A guide to everything in English usage that the author wasn't entirely clear about until quite recently”, and suggests that for most of us, the rules of English grammar are “at best a dimly remembered thing”. Jenkins adopts a similar wry tone but is genuinely there to help. He refers regularly to the more magisterial authorities in style and usage, and now and again jumps on a hobby horse (for words like chair/person, reverend, and facility) and indulges in a bit of literary word‐play about misinterpretations of phrases and spellings from Shakespeare, but most of the time he says that the sun will still rise tomorrow morning even if we get things wrong.

And there is quite a lot of wrong about, like starting sentences with the word “and”. Others include comprise (the whole comprises the parts, not the other way round), criterion/a (with confused singulars and plurals), decimate (a tenth removed, but even of one person?), and fortuitous (to mean lucky rather than by chance). For journalists and editors there are false titles (the “Latin American marketing director X” who might be Latin American or merely work there), raging and waging wars, tautologies (“the general consensus of opinion”), danglers (“A first‐time author at age 66, McCourt's memoir has topped best‐seller lists...” – we cannot make the opus its own author, says Jenkins), and those old friends brackets and hyphens. Some things are just happy oddities, like mondegreens (from the ballad “They ha' slain the Earl o'Moray, And laid him on the green”, where, because the sound gets confused, two murders seem to have taken place).

Style and usage are, of course, always changing and evolving, and Jenkins is alert to this – Democrat (used as an adjective), “graduated college”, head up (rather than head), impact (as a verb), normalcy, resonate, snuck (as past tense of sneak), and “try and” (rather than “try to” and in “to try and weed out detainees”). There is much to trip up the wary and unwary writer, editor, journalist, student, general reader, and (to judge from most of Jenkins's correspondents) above all older readers who think they might know better and who get grumpy about grammar in very much the same way as Lynne Truss did in the bestseller Eats, Shoots and Leaves (which could so easily have been Eats Shoots, and Leaves). We are not just talking about the apparent choices we have between “compare with” and “compare to” (difference and similarity, respectively, but...), “different from/to/than”, and fewer‐vs‐less. There is the whole maze of confusions associated with lie/lay, imply/infer, affect/effect, farther/further, assure/ensure, oral/verbal, and many more. In such cases, we usually find that as much heat as light is (are?) generated even between friends, and people search for distinctions and even rules and mnemonics to remind them of the difference. Jenkins struggles with his mnemonics and they always seem just an added burden on top of everything else: if you have that sort of mind, fine, but otherwise why add to the problem?

Some of these “issues” (see Jenkins who dislikes this word‐of‐all‐work) are simply confusions, like plurals of “attorney general” and problems like double possessives (as in “China and South Korea's rise to challenge Japan's position”, and whether China needs one too). Some are reasoning problems, like “between the cracks” (in them or between the slabs) and “hitting milestones” (hope not!) and “near misses” (vexatious this one, unlike unique). Statistics is a field of its own and Jenkins bravely ventures into phrases like “five times below the national average” (a logical impossibility) and whether an increase of 100 per cent doubles what we started with (it does but many do not think so).

At the heart of all this are matters of style and usage that are grammatical, reasoning‐based, and lexical (about meanings). This is where the title of the book comes in: that and which, which to use, and why. The key thing here is whether it is essential or not. “The cars that were green failed to run” vs “The cars which were green failed to run”. If (all) the cars failed to run, as opposed to the green ones only, then the difference matters. Even Fowler has been “largely ignored by his countrymen” (country‐persons?), Jenkins says, in one of several fleeting allusions to British English (which does not figure very much, except in things like a UK preference for “different to” as opposed to “different than”).

The whole area is the tip of a very large iceberg – of lexicography and style/usage manual publishing, socio‐linguistics and cross‐cultural studies, political correctness and spelling bees, and nobody likes to be wrong. Test this out on friends with what they do with past participles of broadcast – “broadcasted”? or whether they think “media” is singular or plural (and whether it really matters). Jenkins's book is eccentric, endearing, playful, and wise, very much a creature of its origins as a language corner (I personally wish he has got rid of those irritatingly irrelevant correspondents with whom he has a rather coy ingratiating friendship, very much that of a coterie), and enters a crowded field, but for anyone with a love of language it is really fun. For a public and college library reference section and for personal collections wherever disputes about usage arise.

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