Showing posts with label which versus that. Show all posts
Showing posts with label which versus that. Show all posts

14 January 2020

Copyediting tips


A lot of editors wear one hat or another. They do developmental editing or copyediting. Not both. But not me. While I prefer developmental work, I also happily do copyediting. Helping make a manuscript consistent appeals to the anal-retentive side of my personality. (And while we're on it, yes, I know, that looks wrong: copyediting. It should be copy editing, don't you think? But the Chicago Manual of Style is what most (all?) publishers rely upon for fiction, and Chicago says to use copyediting and copyeditor. So I will here, even as I shiver while doing it.

Anyway ... it's late and I'm short on time tonight, so I'm going to quickly talk about two copyediting problems I spot all the time, not just in fiction, but on blogs and Facebook and, basically, everywhere. Both issues deal with when it's appropriate to set words or word phrases off by commas.

You think you know the answer? Let's see. I'm going to post some example sentences and you decide which ones are properly punctuated.

Example 1

A) My short story "The Case of the Missing Pot Roast" was published in 2018.
OR
B) My short story, "The Case of the Missing Pot Roast," was published in 2018.

Example 2

A) My newest short story "Alex's Choice" was published in Crime Travel.
OR
B) My newest short story, "Alex's Choice," was published in Crime Travel.

So what do you think? In each example, was (A) or (B) correctly punctuated? Based on a mistake I see often, I'll bet most of you (including you writers out there) said (B) for both. And I say to that ...

Buzz!

You lose that round. In Example 1, the correct answer is (A). But in Example 2, the correct answer is (B). Why? It all has to do with whether the story titles are necessary for the sentence to be clear.
A pot roast dinner because ... why not?


You set a story title (or any information) off with commas when that information is not necessary for the sentence to be clear. So let's look at Example 1. If I wrote it without the story title it would say: My short story was published in 2018. That would probably leave you thinking, "Which story are you talking about? You've had a lot of stories published. You even had more than one published in 2018." And you would be right, which is why you need to know the story title for that sentence to be clear. Since the story title is required, you don't set it off with commas. So the correct punctuation for the sentence in Example 1 is: My short story "The Case of the Missing Pot Roast" was published in 2018.

Turning to Example 2, here's how it would read without the story title: My newest story was published in Crime Travel. Assuming again that you're familiar with my work, do you need the story title to know what story I'm talking about? Nope. I only have one newest story, so I don't need to say its name for you to know which story I'm talking about. Since the story title isn't necessary in that sentence, if I were to add it, the title should be set off with commas, as such: My newest story, "Alex's Choice," was published in Crime Travel.

Think you've got it? Let's try again.

Example 3:

It's 2006, and I call my sister and say, "My short story was nominated for an award." She would congratulate me and know exactly which story I'm talking about because at that time I only had one story published. As such, if I'd included the story title in the sentence, it would have been  unnecessary detail, so it would have been set off by commas: My short story, "Murder at Sleuthfest," was nominated for an award.

But let's say I had two stories published in 2005. If I called my sister a few months later and said, "My short story was nominated for an award," she would ask, "Which one?" She can't tell which story I'm talking about because it could have been my first story published in 2005 or my second one. So I have to revise my sentence to make it clear: My short story "Murder at Sleuthfest" was nominated for an award. Since the story title is necessary for the sentence to be clear, it's not set off by commas.


Paul Rudd
Here's another example, just to be sure you've got it. Assume I'm not a bigamist and I'm married. Which is correct?

A) My husband Paul Rudd reads more than I do.
OR
B) My husband, Paul Rudd, reads more than I do.

If I had just one husband (and if I have to make one up, Paul Rudd is a good choice), his name would be set off by commas because you wouldn't need to know his name for this sentence to be clear. If I had simply said "My husband reads more than I do," you'd know I'm talking about Paul Rudd.

But what if I were a bigamist? Then if I said, "My husband reads more than I do," you would rightly say, "Which husband? Paul Rudd or Robert Downey Jr.?" (If I'm going to be a bigamist, I might as well do it right.) So for that sentence to be clear, I'd have to say: "My husband Paul Rudd reads more than I do." You'll notice there are no commas in that sentence because dear Paul's name was necessary for the sentence to be clear.

More Paul Rudd
Let's move on to something related: Which versus That. I see the word "which" used so often when the correct word in a particular situation is "that." When do you use "which" and when do you use "that"? If information is necessary to a sentence, you use "that" and no commas. If information is unnecessary to a sentence, you use "which" and commas.

Example:

I've just gone shopping and come home with one new blouse. I put it on and show it to my husband, Paul Rudd. (Set off by a comma because I'm no bigamist!) And he says, "Your new top is pretty." And I smile, pleased that he liked my new top. There was no confusion in our conversation. He could have said, "Your new top, which is blue, is pretty." But he didn't have to mention the color because I only bought one new top, so I know which top he's referring to. Since the color wasn't necessary for the sentence to be clear, the information was set off by commas and the word "which" was used.

You can never have
enough Paul Rudd
But what if I'd come home with two new blouses? I model both of them for Paul and say, "What do you think?" He replies, "Your new top is pretty." Instead of smiling, I say back, "Which one are you talking about? The red one or the blue one? You don't think they're both pretty? I spent hours looking for two tops I thought you would like, and you can't even bother to have a kind word for both of them, you son of a ..."

Oh, wait, sorry, back to grammar. So you see, Paul's declaration that my new top was pretty was ambiguous because I hadn't bought just one top. So I calmly ask Paul which one he's referring to, and he says, "Sorry, I should have been clear. Your new top that's blue is pretty. The red one's ugly as sin." Since the color blue was necessary for me to know which blouse he liked, the information was not set off by commas and the word "that" was used.

And now I'm off to therapy since I can't even have a happy marriage with an imaginary husband.

20 May 2014

Which-es Brew


by Dale C. Andrews
I found that Thai was the only language which wanted to pass my lips in any coherent form, and the only word which I seemed capable of forming was, why?
                        The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August 
                        Claire North 

       Two weeks ago, in the context of a discussion on Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, I wrote about the ability of most authors to develop a “writer’s ear.” Simply put, writing with a “writer’s ear” means that the test of the narrative is “does it sound right?” If so, so be it. Writing from Strunk and White is like flying on instruments, writing from your own ear is like flying by dead reckoning. And dead reckoning is sort of where we all want to be -- we learn the rules so that we can freely write without reference to them. 

       Whether this works, however, depends upon how well we have developed that “writer’s ear,” how well we have mastered the rules before we begin to grant ourselves the luxury of ignoring them.

       How much freedom does our "writer's ear" deserve?  Back in 2006 James J. Kilpatrick had this to say in one of his On Writing pieces: 
Is "woken" a legitimate verb? We're talking style today, so stick around. The question came last week from George Woodward of Berlin, Conn. He enclosed a clipping about a fellow who is regularly "woken up by garbage trucks." He asked: Should an editor have changed it to read, "awakened by garbage trucks"? The answer lies in a writer's ear. "Woken" is indeed a legitimate alternative to the more popular "awakened." The thing is, we read with our ears as well as our eyes. What does your ear tell you? I believe an editor with a lively sense of style would leave the sentence alone.
        Of course, all of this pretty much depends upon how good that “ear” is. Kilpatrick offers a pretty strict test: If there are multiple usages, each of which is correct but one of which is more popular, the writer (and his or her editor) may choose either based on what sounds right to the writer’s ear 

       But what if the ear is, in some respect, untrained? What if the choice is one between a correct usage and a grammatically incorrect usage? Return with me now to that quote at the top of today’s piece. How many of you are bothered by the quotation, from the pseudonymous Claire North’s new novel The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August? Do the two usages of “which” grate? It’s understandable if they do, because In each case the indisputably correct word should have been “that.” 

       Before moving on here I need to state that I thoroughly enjoyed The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August. It is a very engaging science fiction novel with great characters, a neat time-travel plot and an inspired underlying story. I recommend it as a great read. But if you are a stickler on the correct usage of “which” and “that” (and I confess that I am), be prepared for some eye rolling. Throughout the book the author (and her editor) get it wrong almost every time. 

        By all accounts, figuring out when to use “which” and when to use “that” is one of the great stumbling blocks for writers to master. Ms. North is therefore in good company. Stephen King consistently mixed up the two words for years until, somewhere around ten years ago, something clicked in his head or in the head of his editor. And I was a member of those same ranks. I wrote and edited legal papers for decades without figuring this one out. Finally, about 20 years ago when documents kept coming back to me from the General Counsel’s office with “which” changed to “that” and “that” changed to “which” I hunkered down and learned the rule. And strangely, once you “get” the rule your writer’s ear will predictably kick in. That which previously slipped by unnoticed will then begin to grate. 

       Many of you, I am sure, are already on board. You know when to use “which" and when to use “that” and you are likely feeling a bit bored with all of this. You folks can quit here and just jump down and read (or re-read) Fran Rizer's excellent article from yesterday, or maybe Stephen Ross' thoughtful guest article from Sunday.   

       But for the rest of you, here is the rule as simply as I know how to put it:  Use “that” as the opening word in a restrictive clause; use “which” as the opening word in a non-restrictive clause.

Which is which? Well, if you can’t eliminate the clause from the sentence the clause is restrictive. An example would be “SleuthSayers is the daily blog that brings together mystery short story writers.” You can’t get rid of “that brings together mystery short story writers” and still have the sentence make sense.  So the clause is restrictive and requires “that.”

By contrast, if our example read “SleuthSayers, which offers a new article every day, is the mystery short story writers’ blog” it would contain a non-restrictive clause. The sentence still makes sense without the phrase “which offers a new article every day.” So the non-restrictive modifying clause requires a “which.” Clauses with “which” are therefore not unlike the extra information imparted when you use a parenthetical, which is another way to recognize them. 

       Want an even simpler rule? This one works something like 95% of the time, which is enough for most of our writer’s ears: If a clause is set off by commas it should begin with “which.” Otherwise, use “that.” Of course, this all presupposes that one also knows when to set off a clause with commas. And when do you do this? Well, when the first word is “which!” 

       If which-es were horses …