Monthly Archives: February 2012

Commas and Relative Clauses

Our task for today is to understand how we punctuate relative clauses. In the simplest terms, a relative clause is a clause that begins with a relative pronoun (which,  that, who, whom, whose). Let’s begin by looking at this example of a sentence with a relative clause:

CNCP patients, whose complaints of pain are not adequately addressed, start to display aberrant drug-related behaviours that are mistaken for addiction.

This sentence—taken directly from student writing—is not incorrect as written, but it doesn’t say what the author intended. Here is what the author meant to say:

CNCP patients whose complaints of pain are not adequately addressed start to display aberrant drug-related behaviours that are mistaken for addiction.

The difference? The second version of the sentence shows that it is about a subgroup of CNCP patients ‘whose complaints of pain are not adequately addressed’. There are many CNCP patients in the world and only some of them suffer in this manner. The first version says that all CNCP patients have complaints of pain that are not adequately addressed. Because of the commas, we have to read the relative clause as supplementary information about all CNCP patients. Technically, our first sentence could be reworded as follows:

CNCP patients [all of them] have complaints of pain that are not adequately addressed. CNCP patients start to display aberrant drug-related behaviours that are mistaken for addiction.

Rewording the sentence in this way reflects the fact that the original sentence portrayed the relative clause as supplementary. But the author’s intention was not to provide extra information about this group of patients; instead, the author wanted to define a particular group of patients under discussion. The lack of commas in our revised version indicate that the information following the relative pronoun is integral to the antecedent noun:

CNCP patients whose complaints of pain are not adequately addressed start to display aberrant drug-related behaviours that are mistaken for addiction.

The bolding emphasizes the integration of the relative clause. This integration is conveyed to the reader by the absence of commas. When we do use commas, we are telling the reader that we are providing supplementary information.

I chose this example because it is easy to see—even without being familiar with the subject matter—that the punctuation in the original sentence was probably misleading. One of the great difficulties in explaining how to punctuate relative clauses is that context matters. I always tell students to take whatever I have said about punctuating relative clauses home with them: only in applying those principles to their own sentences—sentences that they themselves fully grasp—will they come to understand whether a relative clause is integral or supplementary.

If you are familiar with this topic, you will notice that I am not using the traditional terminology (restrictive and nonrestrictive) or the usual variants (defining and non-defining, essential and inessential, identifying and non-identifying). It is possible, of course, to explain what is meant by these terms, but I have never found the common terminology to be particularly intuitive. More recently, I have noticed people using the terms integral relative clause and supplementary relative clause. I find these terms to be more intuitive, which is why I have started to use them in my classroom teaching. I would be interested to know if anyone has thoughts about whether this different terminology is helpful or just confusing.

Now let’s look at some more examples to reinforce the distinction between integral and supplementary relative clauses.

There are many narratives that can be used to illuminate the psychological concept of extraversion.

The relative clause is integral to the meaning of ‘narratives’. The sentence isn’t just telling us that there are many narratives. It is telling us that there are many narratives that can be used in a particular fashion.

The philosophical approach that is articulated by Rorty will set the tone for the proceedings at the conference.

This sentence is telling us what will set the tone for this conference. And it isn’t just any philosophical approach: it is the philosophical approach that is articulated by Rorty. Again, the relative clause is integral to the meaning of ‘philosophical approach’. Now let’s look at some examples of supplementary relative clauses:

Given the educational conditions in Malawi, which is located in eastern Africa, creative teacher training programs are essential.

Using transactional memory, which requires special hardware or software support, will address the problems associated with using locks.

Theorists argue that gender equity, which is defined here in economic terms, is a crucial component in any attempt to address the global AIDS crisis.

In each of these cases, the antecedent of the relative clauses is completely sufficient without the relative clause. A country is a useful example since it is easy to see that you don’t need any additional information to know what is meant by Malawi. Its location within its continent is obviously supplementary information. Likewise, ‘transactional memory’ is a fully defined term: the fact that it requires special hardware or software support is extra information. Take that information away and the term itself is just as informative. In the third example, even though the supplementary relative clause claims to be defining ‘gender equity’, it is doing so in a supplementary way. The sentence is telling us that gender equity is crucial and it is also clarifying what gender equity means in this context.

Here is a final example, one that gives three different versions of the same sentence:

The articles, which stem from the 1970s and the early 1980s, show Lefort intent on persuading the reading public about the totalitarian nature of the Soviet Union and the countries of the Eastern bloc.

The articles that stem from the 1970s and the early 1980s show Lefort intent on persuading the reading public about the totalitarian nature of the Soviet Union and the countries of the Eastern bloc.

The articles which stem from the 1970s and the early 1980s show Lefort intent on persuading the reading public about the totalitarian nature of the Soviet Union and the countries of the Eastern bloc.

The first two sentences follow the pattern I have been discussing. I chose this example because it shows how easily ambiguity can arise when we’re not clear about the punctuation we need. The first sentence is discussing a group of articles and using its relative clause to give us extra information about when they were written. The second sentence, on the other hand, is using its relative clause to identify a particular subset of articles. The implication of the first sentence is that all the articles were written in the 70s and early 80s. The implication of the second sentence is that there is a broader group of articles (presumably spanning a broader time frame); the author is drawing your attention to a subset of that broader group. Needless to say, it is important for the author to clarify which is meant. In my own experience, the decision about how to punctuate relative clauses often helps me to clarify my own meaning. Similarly, in discussing this issue with students, it often emerges that they aren’t quite sure what they were hoping to convey through their punctuation choices.

But what of the third sentence? Is it the same as the second sentence or is it different? In other words, is it okay to use ‘which’ to introduce an integral relative clause? Yes, it is. But while I would love to leave it at that, I feel I should say something about how I view this issue. The good news is that we have already covered the important part: you must signal your intention to your reader through your use of commas. If the information is integral, skip the commas; if, on the other hand, the information is supplementary, show that with your use of commas. Simple enough. But you do need to choose a relative pronoun and, for many, that decision raises a certain anxiety. When I ask students about their habits in this regard, I get a range of replies (often involving something a high school English teacher once said): guessing and then feeling bad; turn taking (first ‘which’, then ‘that’); using ‘which’ because it is more formal; never thinking about it. For a fairly typical prescriptive discussion, see this post from APA Style. For a more nuanced, historical view, try Stan Carey’s excellent post on this topic (as usual, Carey also provides a very helpful roundup of what others have said about this issue).

Given the general uncertainty this topic engenders, what should we do? My own preference—and that is all it is, a preference—is to use ‘that’ without commas and ‘which’ with commas. The first part of this practice is unexceptionable: nobody uses ‘that’ to introduce supplementary information. It is the second part that causes heartache. Look at this simple table:

integral supplementary
that YES NO
which ?? YES

My preference is to replace those two question marks with a ‘NO’. Not, to repeat, because I think this use of ‘which’ is wrong, but only because I like the clarity and simplicity of reserving ‘which’ and ‘that’ for different uses. I start with the important question—do I need commas or not?—and then use that as the basis for my decision about what relative pronoun to use. I explain this to students in just these terms: once they have sorted out the important issue of how to punctuate, they are free to choose their relative pronouns however they wish. But I do stress that this distinction is often treated in more absolute terms in advice on scientific writing. Whether or not this is true across the board, I do suggest that students preparing scientific papers consider reserving ‘which’ for instances in which they are using commas to convey supplementarity. For me it all comes down to this principle: if our audience might find a particular usage to be ambiguous—even if we know that it is perfectly acceptable—it can make sense to avoid that usage.

There is much more that could be said, but this post is already far longer than a blog post should be! If there is anything that you see as needing further explanation or elaboration, I would love to hear about it in the comments.

This post is the fourth in a series of posts on comma use. The first post dealt with commas and coordinating conjunctions. The second dealt with non-standard commas and punctuating for length. The third dealt with the importance of knowing when you need a pair of commas.

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Impactful Pet Peeves

Everywhere I’ve been over the past week, people have been sharing this list of ‘grammar mistakes’. You don’t need to click on the link to know the sort of thing: a list of errors that are terribly egregious despite the fact that everyone makes them all the time. I am fascinated by the mindset that is unmoved by the prevalence of  such ‘errors’. The pleasure of being right when everyone else is wrong seems to be so great that it obscures any sense that we should view the prevalence of a particular practice as relevant.

I generally try to avoid linking to things that I find as unhelpful as this list; you surely don’t need my help finding shoddy advice on the Internet. But I went ahead and did so because I want to point to two key issues with this list. First, very little on this list is grammar (and the bits that are grammar are either wrong or dismally explained). This observation is more than just a quibble. The perception among students that their writing problems primarily involve grammar means that they often view their path to improvement as both narrow and fundamentally uninteresting. Not to say that grammar is actually uninteresting (obviously!) but rather that students might engage more readily with the task of improving their writing if they conceived of the task as having a broader intellectual basis. Improving your writing isn’t just fiddling with technicalities and arcane rules; it is a matter of thinking deeply about your ideas and your communicative intent. Calling it all grammar can be both dismissive and uninspiring.

The second—and more important—issue is the reasoning that underlies this list. A list like this says ‘all educated people should know these things, so avoid these errors lest you seem uneducated’. This edict misses an opportunity to talk about better reasons for avoiding certain usage patterns. For example, should you say ‘impactful’? It is meaningless to say that it isn’t a word: it is so obviously a word (if you aren’t sure, contrast it with ‘xsxsjwcrt’ and you’ll see the difference). But that doesn’t mean the world needs more instances of ‘impactful’. Use it at your own risk: most people find it icky and its presence in your writing may make them think unkind thoughts about you. Moreover, if something is having an impact on something else, you can likely convey that more effectively with a clear subject and a strong verb. Your writing will improve much more decisively if you disregard unnecessary discussions of legitimacy and instead think more about why certain usage patterns are so widely disliked.

After I had written this, I found a great roundup on this topic from Stan Carey. He discusses a range of these sorts of lists and provides his usual insightful response. He concludes with an excellent warning about grammar pet peeve lists: “Read them, if you must, with extreme caution, a policy of fact-checking, an awareness of what grammar isn’t, and a healthy disrespect for the authority they assume.”

Lastly, I really enjoyed the inaugural episode of the new language podcast from Slate, Lexicon Valley. The highly entertaining and wide-ranging conversation about dangling prepositions ends with an amusing discussion of Paul McCartney’s famous double preposition. A preposition at the end of a sentence is generally permissible, but it is probably best not to split the difference in this fashion: “But if this ever-changing world in which we live in/Makes you give in and cry/Say live and let die”.

Fear of Error

Before the holidays, I wrote a brief post commenting on something Stan Carey had written in the Macmillan Dictionary blog about adopting a forgiving attitude towards mistakes. I concluded that post by saying that “Better writing will come not from the fear of error but from the appreciation of the power of great prose.” Although I now wish I had been a bit less pompous, that is an accurate reflection of how I feel. At least it is what I tell others they should feel. But I had an interesting moment of further reflection recently that made me wonder how well I practice what I preach. I was reading the Facebook comments on a Huffington Post article. Early on in the comments, someone pointed out two ‘errors’ in Lisa Belkin’s article (a misused hyphen and case of improper capitalization). Belkin graciously acknowledged both errors, thanked the person who had caught them, and tried to shift the conversation back to the topic at hand. But the allure of discussing editorial fallibility was too great. People began piling on and soon someone asked whether HuffPo was without editors (you can imagine the tone in which that question was asked). To her great credit, Belkin pointed out that they do indeed have editors and that they also have hundreds of extra editors, a system that worked pretty effectively in this case. Mistakes were made, mistakes were identified (by those elusive fresh eyes that editing demands and that are in such short supply), mistakes were eliminated. A happy ending, unless you believe that someone somewhere dies a little bit every time a mistake is seen by the public.

I was so impressed by the sanity of this response. Rather than wishing nobody had ever seen her mistakes, she was glad that someone caught them. I wish I could adopt such a sanguine attitude about the possibility of error in my own writing. I have to keep reminding myself that errors aren’t ultimately what matters; reception and engagement are what matters. If we are read by lots of people, there is more chance that our words will have an impact and more chance that those people will come back to us with interesting and challenging reactions. And there is more chance that at least one smarty pants will come along and happily point out our mistakes. In this vein, I love reading the New York Times’ After Deadline blog in which an editor discusses all the stuff that got past their editorial staff. I’m always amazed by how much their editorial staff care about all this and by the fact that this impressive commitment in no way prevents them from missing all sorts of problems. I think devoting a blog to the acknowledgement, correction, and dissection of those errors is a great way to handle them. This sort of treatment shows that mistakes are inevitable, fixable, and often very interesting.

I was hoping that this post was going to be about the use of commas in restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses, but that just didn’t happen. Maybe next week will be more conducive to thinking deeply about commas!

Links: Argument as Action, Writing Assignments, Break Writing

I have no idea why an incomplete draft version of this post was sent to those of you who are subscribers. I can’t decide whether I hope it was WordPress’s fault (meaning that any draft post might be randomly published at any time) or my own fault (meaning that I’m incompetent). I don’t see any discussion of this problem in the WordPress forums, so I have to assume it was just me. My apologies for taking up unnecessary space in your inbox!

This post from the Lingua Franca blog addresses the nature of complexity and obscurity in academic prose. Lucy Ferriss mentions the University of Chicago sentence generator (which I discussed here) and then evaluates some of the pitfalls of academic writing. I particularly like her decision to direct attention away from jargon toward the prevalence of weak verbs. Jargon is an easy target: it can seem so gratuitous and so obstructive. But it is, in many cases, a red herring; jargon is often just doing its job and is thus not deserving of the amount of vitriol directed its way. (To be sure, I am talking specifically about academic writing and not bureaucratic or business writing; the use of jargon in those types of writing requires a very different analysis.) By deflecting concern away from the obvious suspect, Ferriss is able to turn her critical eye towards the verbs that are failing to animate the relationships between these bits of jargon (or ‘technical vocabulary’ as we say when we are trying to make nice). In Ferriss’s words, “we’ve lost sight of argument as action”. Solving this problem won’t be possible at the level of vocabulary choice; we will need to target the weakness that is often found at the heart of such sentences, the verb.

This post from the Hook and Eye blog deals with the length of writing assignments. The author makes a good case for asking students for shorter pieces of writing: that practice would allow instructors to pay closer attention and would increase the chances of giving feedback on multiple iterations of the same text. What if instructors assigned 3 pages to be submitted twice rather than 6 pages to be submitted only once? Obviously, there are unique skills involved in writing long texts, skills that all academic writers need to develop. And if short writing assignments were treated as insignificant precisely because they were short, that would undermine the value of this proposal. Overall, however, the close attention and multiple iterations might give students the chance to develop skills that they could later use in the pursuit of excellence in longer pieces of writing.

Break Writing is a collection of posts on academic writing from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Columbia University (they are called ‘break writing’ because they were sent at regular intervals over the recent winter break). These posts—all based around the importance of writing everyday—are full of helpful advice for academic productivity. Everyone needs different strategies and motivations, but I am sure there is something here for everyone. And the list of resources provides lots of places to look for more guidance.

Lastly, from the The Professor Is In blog, here is a good overview of a recent conference on non-tenure track faculty. The author provides her own take on the conference plus links to other reactions to this conference and the issue of contingent faculty more broadly. This topic falls outside the normal range of topics for this blog, except that academic writing can never be divorced from the professional circumstances under which academics write.

Every other week, this space is devoted to a discussion of things (articles, news items, or blog posts) that I have recently found interesting. I choose things that are connected—sometimes closely, sometimes only tangentially—to academic writing. Responding to other people’s ideas allows me to clarify my own thoughts and to draw your attention to other approaches to the issues central to this blog.