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Thursday, January 21, 2010

Writer Mag Column 16: Relative Pronouns

Hanging out with the relatives: Tips on how to use "that" and "which"

This holiday season, my relatives and I shared fun times, meals and a few germs. I should have spent time with some other relatives, guys like "that" and "which." If I had, I wouldn't be coughing right now. On the other hand, getting along with these relatives can be difficult—like any relatives, "that" and "which" have certain quirks.

A common place you'll meet up with "that" and "which," along with other relative pronouns such as "where" and "who," is at the head of a relative clause. You'll see them in sentences such as The potato salad that made me sick had not been refrigerated and The potato salad, which made me sick, had not been refrigerated.

The difference between a "that" sentence and a "which" sentence sometimes stumps writers. Choose "that" if you're giving vital information; you cannot delete the clause without changing the meaning. Choose "which" if you can delete the "which" clause. In the first potato-salad sentence, the clause "that made me sick" is describing a particular toxic dish. In the second, the "which" clause acts as an aside. The difference is officially called restrictive ("that" clauses) versus nonrestrictive ("which" clauses).

"That" and "which" have other uses, though, and that's where the quirks come in.

Quirk 1: You can sometimes leave out "that."

I think that you're wonderful has the same meaning as I think you're wonderful. In this sentence, it's perfectly fine to leave out "that." In a similar vein, the sentences I said I would eat a sandwich and I said that I would eat a sandwich are equal.

Keeping or omitting a "that" is often just a matter of personal preference. Some think (that) adding "that" improves the flow of the sentence and makes it easier for readers to understand. Others believe (that) they should delete every seemingly unnecessary "that." I often like to keep my "that" if it helps the rhythm of the sentence. It's up to you as the writer to decide.

If you do get rid of a "that," be careful not to write a sentence that could be ambiguous or misunderstood. In the sentence Natalie maintains Jake's yard is too small, it first appears (that) Natalie is maintaining Jake's yard. When we get to the end of the sentence, though, we learn (that) "maintains" is a synonym for "thinks." A "that" fixes everything: Natalie maintains that Jake's yard is too small.

It's sometimes tricky to know if your sentence is ambiguous because you, the writer, know what you mean. I always find it useful to put aside my work for a while and then read it again with fresh eyes, or you could always rope in a colleague to read over your work.

Quirk 2: It's OK to use "that" to refer to a person.

Traditionally, you use "who" with a person, as in He is the relative who poisoned me with his potato salad. It is also acceptable to use "that" instead of "who," although it might rub some people the wrong way. I personally prefer "who," but if you're a person that wants to use "that," go right ahead.

Quirk 3: You may use "which" at the beginning of a sentence—sometimes.

"Which" traditionally modifies a noun, as in the sentence I crossed the suspension bridge, which seemed to sway in the heavy wind. Here, "which" describes "bridge." You can also use a "which" clause to modify another clause or an entire sentence, as in I had to spend the whole day with my relatives, which tired me out. Here, "which tired me out" refers to the entire part of the sentence that came before it: "I had to spend the whole day with my relatives."

If you wanted to create a dramatic effect with the "bridge" sentence above, you could end the sentence at "bridge" and use a stand-alone "which" phrase: I crossed the suspension bridge. Which seemed to sway in the heavy wind. If you do so, you'll be using a sentence fragment. Which you are allowed to use occasionally to make your point stand out.

Use this technique sparingly, though. You don't want to overdo things. Also, ensure that your "which" clause doesn't confuse readers by potentially referring to more than one noun.

Quirk 4: You can use "where" instead of "at which" or "in which."

Compare these two sentences: The store at which I met you had a sale and The store where I met you had a sale. The first is a bit uptight, whereas the second is more conversational. Which one you choose depends on your audience or on the character who utters the words. A character who's asking questions in a courtroom might use "at which" or "in which"; a teenage character who's chatting with her friends is more likely to say "where."

If it wouldn't sound odd for your character to say "which," you can use different prepositions before it to make your sentence quite precise. For example, The house at which I saw you differs slightly from The house in which I saw you. If you use "where," you lose the subtle distinction: The house where I saw you.

Quirk 5: "That" clauses often turn into misplaced modifiers. (You've heard me say it before, but I enjoy repeating myself.)

Frankly, "that" clauses suffer terrible abuse. Take, for example, this awful sentence, taken from a newspaper article about how DNA in a leech helped solve a crime in Australia: Detectives found the leech at the crime scene and extracted blood from it that they believed was from one of the two suspects. The unusual sequence of words in this sentence—"from it that"—should be illegal in English. The perpetrator of this Criminal Sentence deserves a mandatory life term.

Another Criminal Sentence I object to involves a "that" clause but the actual "that" is missing (see Quirk 1): Sanders has friends in the building he was visiting that night. Was Sanders visiting the friends or the building?

Please fix these two Criminal Sentences and send your rewrites to If you're rusty on your misplaced modifiers, read up on them. Hint: If your sentence contains two nouns that a clause could modify, be sure to put the modifying clause next to the right noun.

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