Save the Orphans: Take Care of Your “Who” and “That” Clauses
A nasty epidemic is sweeping the world and is producing lonely orphans. No, it’s not swine flu; it’s a plague that has seeped into everyone’s writing and won’t go away. Even The Elements of Style, written some 90 years ago, complains about it (Rule 20). I’m talking about orphaned “who” and “that” clauses. They’ve been cruelly separated from their parents and they need to find a way back home.
Never heard of this epidemic? Well, pick up any book or newspaper and you’ll find these poor orphans sprinkled among otherwise decent prose. New York Times-bestselling authors are not immune—and, unfortunately, neither are you. So you must become a careful writer, because only you can cure this plague. You must take action now. Help reunite these orphans with the correct family members before the children become lost forever, left to languish in print and ridiculed by ornery copy editors like me.
I’ve plucked some orphaned “who” and “that” clauses from various books and papers I’ve read—and cursed—recently. It’s a good idea for you to examine the following five Criminal Sentences so that you can A) learn about this problem, which devastates a writer’s credibility; and B) laugh at the ridiculous sentences your fellow writers have wrought:
Criminal Sentence 1 (from a book): “Cattle and sheep are gone that the farmers thought were on safe ground.”
Criminal Sentence 2 (from a newspaper): “Paul Rudd stars as a man about to be married who needs to find a best man.”
Criminal Sentence 3 (from a book): “Seeds were being sown in the young man’s mind that were soon to grow into a virulent hatred of the place.”
Criminal Sentence 4 (from a book): “All the job required was a guy who didn't mind sitting in a tree who liked to shoot things.”
Criminal Sentence 5 (from a book): “The student submitted a piece for class discussion that was shockingly incoherent.”
Are these sentences shockingly incoherent or what? Yes, they exude badness, but unfortunately such jumbled and imprecise sentences abound.
You know that an orphan is crying out for her mama when the word right before the “who” or “that” clause does not match up. These five orphans are screaming loudly for their mothers because they’ve been placed right next to scary strangers (in other words, each “who” or “that” clause is next to something that it doesn’t truly modify):
Criminal Sentence 1: “gone that the farmers thought were on safe ground.”
Criminal Sentence 2: “married who needs to find a best man.”
Criminal Sentence 3: “mind that were soon to grow into a virulent hatred of the place.”
Criminal Sentence 4: “tree who liked to shoot things.”
Criminal Sentence 5: “discussion that was shockingly incoherent.”
These orphans are scared and alone. Let’s reunite them with their anguished families, who have been longing to be close to them (in other words, please place each “who” or “that” clause right next to what it modifies):
Criminal Sentence 1: “cattle and sheep that the farmers thought were on safe ground.”
Criminal Sentence 2: “a man who needs to find a best man.”
Criminal Sentence 3: “seeds that were soon to grow into a virulent hatred of the place.”
Criminal Sentence 4: “a guy who liked to shoot things.”
Criminal Sentence 5: “a piece that was shockingly incoherent.”
We did it! Almost. All we have to do is rewrite the sentences. Some are easy; you simply need to rearrange the clauses within each sentence. Some are medium hard; you must reword your sentences to make the syntax correct. Others are super hard because too much is crammed in; you’ll probably have to make each of these bad sentences two sentences. As official coordinator of orphan reunitings, I’ll help you with the first two, but you’ll need to practice on the other three yourself:
Criminal Sentence 1: “Cattle and sheep that the farmers thought were on safe ground are gone.” (I just rearranged the clauses.)
Criminal Sentence 2: “Paul Rudd stars as a man who needs to find a best man in time for his upcoming wedding.” (I had to reword the sentence to make the syntax correct.)
I’m confident you can help the remaining three orphans get back home. Just give it a try and then e-mail them to the world headquarters of Orphan Reunitings International (firstname.lastname@example.org). I’ll be happy to check the paperwork.
Now that you are aware of the orphan plague, I’m counting on you to help me combat it. I need you to take two separate but equal actions:
1) Spread the word. Share this important sentence-health information with all of your writer colleagues. The more people know about this plague, the easier it will be to contain.
2) Ensure that you don’t contribute to the epidemic. When you write a “who” or “that” clause, say aloud (if you’re alone), “Hey! I’ve written a ‘who’ or ‘that’ clause!” Train yourself to notice these clauses—circle them if you have to—and check that everything matches up. It’s even OK to become incensed with other writers’ orphaned “who” and “that” clauses. As a writer, you probably read a lot, too. Noticing others’ errors may help you avoid making them yourself.
If you neglect your “who” and “that” clauses, you’ll get in trouble with your readers (and with any testy copy editors who are lurking nearby). You want your readers to love you, not ridicule you. Let’s keep things all in the family.
Ask Me a Question
If you have a writing, grammar, style or punctuation question, send an e-mail message to curiouscase at sign hotmail dot com.
Add Your Own Criminal Sentence!
If you find a particularly terrible sentence somewhere, post it for all to see (go here and put it in the Comments section).