Monday, 19 April 2010

relatively incorrect

I acquired almost all my knowledge of English grammar between 1956 and 1960. The first of these years was also my final year at junior school, and as learning environments go it was exceptionally brutal. My teacher was an old battleaxe called Miss Lewis who routinely caned boys in front of the rest of the class for what I only later deduced was the ‘crime’ of not being very smart (stupidity was frequently interpreted as laziness in those days). I may well have been the laziest boy in the class, but I was clever enough to be able to avoid such punishment. Our instruction manual was First Aid in English, which introduced me to nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs and other parts of speech.

In 1957, I moved to the local grammar school, where my English teacher for the first three years was Mrs Wilson, or ‘Fisheyes’ as she was affectionately known by her pupils (she was also my form mistress for two of those years). Apart from covering a wide range of literature, including poetry and drama, her lessons also introduced me to adjectival clauses, adverbial clauses and relative clauses (more on that, eventually). Fisheyes was one of only two teachers whom I look back on with anything approaching respect.

Fast forward to 1987, and I’m leaving my home town in the UK to return to Hong Kong. As luck would have it, the second teacher whom I remember with respect, Mrs Hulton, was travelling on the same train down to London. I can’t recall all the details of our conversation during that four-hour journey, but I do remember her telling me that English grammar had not been taught in British schools for the previous two decades, which may explain the following sentence. It appeared in a news item on the BBC website on the final day of 2009, and it describes the latest recipients of ‘honours’ in the UK:
[Patrick] Stewart found worldwide fame in the TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation that ran from the late 1980s to [the] mid-1990s.
This sentence is typical of many such sentences to be found nowadays almost everywhere. If you attended a British state school during the 1970s or 1980s, or you learned English as a second language for business, you will probably think that there is nothing remarkable about the sentence, but think again. Like the creator of this sentence, you clearly have little idea what a relative clause is, so here is a brief primer on the handling of relative clauses:

There are two types of relative clause, as illustrated by the following examples:
The beer that I drank today was purchased last week.

The beer, which I drank today, was purchased last week.

The first is an example of a defining relative clause; it presumes that the reader has no previous knowledge of the beer, or other noun being thus qualified, and it also presumes that there is another category of beer, perhaps the beer that was drunk yesterday or the day before, that we have no knowledge of. It therefore defines the category ‘beer’ as the beer that was drunk today. The second is an example of a non-defining relative clause; such a construction is used when the beer, or other noun being qualified, refers to knowledge presumed to be already in the reader’s possession. No definition is thus required. You should note that the commas are an essential part of this construction.

Analysing the sample BBC sentence, we see that the writer has unintentionally employed a defining relative clause, which implies that there is another TV series, of which we have no knowledge, with the title Star Trek: The Next Generation. This of course is nonsense, but the confusion could have been avoided by writing the sentence with a non-defining clause:
[Patrick] Stewart found worldwide fame in the TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation, which ran from the late 1980s to [the] mid-1990s.
It may seem pedantic to insist on such corrections, and it’s true that the reader can apprehend the intended meaning here, after a moment’s reflection, without ambiguity, but there are many other instances where it simply isn’t clear what the writer intended. Take this example, from a recent news report on an imminent supernova in our galactic backyard:
The blast from the thermonuclear explosion could strip away the Earth’s ozone layer that keeps out deadly space radiation, scientists said.
You may understand relative clauses but be relatively unversed in science, in which case the unavoidable assumption must be that there is more than one ozone layer. This would avoid the ambiguity:
The blast from the thermonuclear explosion could strip away the Earth’s ozone layer, which keeps out deadly space radiation, scientists said.
At least it would if modern writers understood the subtleties of our language. Although some older writers tended to use ‘which’ for both types of clause, they scrupulously inserted the essential comma(s) when employing a non-defining clause. Now, it seems, ‘that’ has usurped ‘which’ as the universal word to use in these circumstances, and the comma appears to have become an optional extra, making a nonsense of many sentences. Given that ‘that’ can also be used as a conjunction, an adverb, a demonstrative pronoun and a demonstrative adjective, this change is inefficient at best and ambiguous in most contexts.

I’m neither a linguist nor a professional grammarian. I’m merely a concerned amateur who cares about precision in language usage, and it’s the rank amateurs we need to worry about, those who don’t think carefully about the meaning of what they write. Because if changes in grammar are being driven by people who have little or no idea of what grammar is, then the clarity and accuracy of written English cannot fail to be compromised. Is this a good thing? I think not.


  1. In school I learned that "which" gets a comma, while "that" does not. That was the extent of my knowledge of relative clauses until today. Thanks for the informative lesson!

  2. I too have noticed how seldom "which" is used these days, something I find to be indicative of the degeneration of our civilization's capacity to communicate precisely and, consequently, profoundly.

    I have also noticed that over the past decades English is being radically simplified, with entire verb tenses and moods being dropped, the effect of which is to limit our ability to communicate. It is something akin to 1984's newspeak, I fear, although not yet as bad as Orwell described. Nonetheless, it is clear where society is going at the moment.

  3. I agree completely with your analysis R.D. The philosophy behind Orwell's Newspeak was that if the word didn't exist, then the thought couldn't exist either.

    Language should be as simple as possible, but not at the expense of losing subtlety and precision in its use. If you use the subjunctive mood, to take just one example, your listener is likely to think that you've made an error in grammar. Result: one more tool of communication becomes useless, because it is understood by fewer and fewer people.


Please leave a comment if you have time, even if you disagree with the opinions expressed in this post, although you must expect a robust defence of those opinions.