Thursday, December 2, 2010

Caribbean Examination Council, regional ministries of education, and the ‘that-which’ rule

This will be an exercise in the usefulness of the internet.

I am curious about the position of regional ministries of education, as (presumably) expressed in the Caribbean Examinations Council syllabi, on the ‘which-that’ rule.

A few more folks now visit this site than did before (thanks, bredren and sistren, guys and dolls) but I am also shouting out those whose sites carry a lot more traffic with the request that they circulate our dilemma because it is an important question and one for which we need an urgent answer. I’ll say why in a minute, but first a little story.

Not long ago, I had a phone call from an academic from the region, distressed because the American publisher to whom this person had submitted a MS was insisting that a host of ‘which’s’ in the MS be converted to ‘that’s’. Of course I had, sadly, to say the publisher was right, and to invoke the ‘which that rule’.


You are working in MSWord, grammar function on. You type this sentence. The pot which had a hole in the bottom had to be thrown out… Behold! The wriggly green line appears under “pot which had a hole in the bottom” and you are advised that this is in need of correction, and you are told what your options are: insert comma after ‘pot’ so clause becomes a descriptive clause, or use ‘that’. This will always happen with sentences in which the word ‘which’ introduces a definitive clause.

If you check the style books, or the newspaper guides, they will say either that the word ‘that’ must introduce such a clause, or, more gently, as does the London Times style guide below, that ‘that’ is usually better that ‘which’ for introducing definitive clauses. (A definitive clause says what the thing being identified is. A descriptive clause merely ascribes a characteristic to it.)

According to the Times, then:

that ... That is almost always better than which in a defining clause, eg, “the train that I take stops at Slough”. As a general rule, use which for descriptive clauses and place it between commas, eg, “the night train, which used to carry newspapers, stops at Crewe”.

And indeed, if you say the sentence, it will indeed roll more pleasingly off the tongue, be more sensible-sounding with ‘that’.

But, by sweet serendipity, this is not the way we learned it in the Caribbean as children. And old habits die hard, especially if you are not in the daily grip (came out as ‘drip’ – Kamau would like that!) of authoritarian software – hence the dilemma of my academic friend.

I’m assessing a book which… oops, no, a book that has been in use in the region and that is replete with infractions of this rule. So I need to know, and would be glad of any help in discovering what the judgment of regional expertise in this matter is.

Thank you, then, on behalf of children and new learners of English in the Caribbean!

On the matter of the Wikileaks, and further to yesterday’s post: Here’s Haroon Siddiqui in today’s Toronto Star on the Wikileaks. His position is not unlike that of the Canadian ex-diplomat whom I quoted yesterday (well, he’s a Canadian, but not a Canadian ex-diplomat)…

Till soon.

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