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Watch Your Words

Rosie Right

Some controversies are perennials. A nice letter from Style reader Robert Cole talks about the "rule" about the use of which and that: which for non restrictive clauses and that for restrictive clauses. He tells us that "as one who was raised to honor the rule (among many others), whenever I see [the rule] violated, I see a warning flag." Mr. Cole's problem is that of many writers, and Rosie, especially when she is wearing her copy editor's hat, has also noticed that which and that are often used interchangeably.

Even if we don't agree with the "rule," it seems to Rosie that following it makes it easier to write without repeating the same word too many times. Rosie, like Mr. Cole, likes the nice distinction between which and that, but we will both probably have to repress our shudders. The new Fowler's (1996) quotes the 1926 edition of Fowler's which tells us "... if writers would agree to regard that as the defining relative pronoun, and which as the non-defining, there would be much gain both in lucidity and in ease. Some there are who follow this principle now; but it would be idle to pretend that it is the practice either of most or of the best writers."

Slightly different examples of how a writer (or speaker) should think carefully about the use, arrangement or the omission of a single word come to us from the New York Times this week. On Nov. 7, in an article describing Microsoft's efforts to lobby the powerful in Washington, there was the following sentence: "In June, Mr. Gates met for lunch with the Republican leaders of the House in the small whip's room off the House chamber." Rosie is sure Rep. Tom Delay would have preferred the sentence to read , "... the whip's small room ..."

On Nov. 11, the same newspaper described a meeting that candidate Bill Bradley had with some 50 senior citizens in Detroit. Writer Keith Bradsher reported that Bradley asked the members of his audience:

"How many of you take any drugs?' ... Mr. Bradley meant prescription drugs... Only five or six hands went up as his audience looked mystified.

"Mr. Bradley pressed on, saying the drugs 'cost too much money.' ..."

"'... I thought he was talking about dope addicts,' said John Curry, 93, a retired auto worker."

It's almost ludicrous how we can bewilder people with carelessness in our language.

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