The Essence of a Clause

In casual reading of OPW (Other People’s Writing), I’ve been known to let “its”/”it’s” and “your”/”you’re” slide.

(Increasingly so, because the cause is starting to seem hopeless.)

But the one I can’t let go–the mistake that bothers me most–is the bungling of that and who.

“I’m the kind of person that complains about other people’s grammar mistakes while making tons of my own.”

“Only readers that have the perfect mix of gullibility and four or more credit cards qualify to buy this product.”

No. People WHO. Gullible readers WHO!

That isn’t the topic today, though.

(It will be one day soon. And there will be blood.)

Today we’re looking at something closely related: That versus which, and the scary, dark, churning river that runs beneath them:

Essential clauses and nonessential clauses.

My reading this afternoon comes from The Associated Press Stylebook:

“Both types of clauses provide additional information about a word or phase in the sentence.”

No problem. We’re writing about X. There is more to say about X. Why start a whole other sentence to say it?

“The difference between them is that the essential clause cannot be eliminated without changing the meaning of the sentence — it so restricts the meaning of the word or phrase that its absence would lead to a substantially different interpretation of what the author meant.”

So the key is whether not saying the additional thing we want to say about X would irreparably damage the information.

I have two cats: A tuxedo, and a six-toed tabby.


One day I leave to get the mail, and when I come back my tea is spilled:


I come to a fast conclusion about what happened, based on past knock-overs. 

“The cat that has the long whiskers and the bow tie on his face did this.”

The whiskers and bow tie are essential to my accusation. They’re how I identify the culprit. Essential clause. And I identify it as such with “that”.

Let’s go back to the text:

“The nonessential clause, however, can be eliminated without altering the basic meaning of the sentence — it does not restrict the meaning so significantly that its absence would radically alter the author’s thought.”

So returning to the scene of the crime, I further conclude that:

“The six-toed cat, which is too lazy to cause any trouble, has been napping on the armchair all day.”

Maybe this isn’t a perfect example. But the fact that the innocent cat is historically too lazy to cause any trouble isn’t essential to my point.

It’s nonessential. So, “which”.

The necessary part is that I believe he’s been on the armchair all day and therefore couldn’t have made the mess.

So I scold the tuxedo, clean up the mess, and get on with things.

Later I check the security camera reel and see the truth:


My house is a house of false accusations.

There are two other interesting points here: One about how comma placement can affect a clause’s essential-ness. And one interesting addendum about “who” vs. “that”, as they relate to “an inanimate object or an animal without a name.”

I think we’ll revisit this in two weeks.

Don’t Let Functional Variation Torch Your Thanksgiving Turkey


5.31 It is fairly common in English for nouns to pass into use as verbs; it always has been.

The Chicago Manual of Style

Maybe, but it’s also fairly annoying. This occurs to me as the holidays loom and I resolve that if anyone “gifts” me anything next month I’m going to spit eggnog in their face.

In fairness, it’s subjective which noun-to-verb functional variations work and which don’t. Yes, I Google and friend like any red-blooded American who wastes too much time online, and I don’t think twice about handing you the rake so you can rake the toilet paper those little punks rolled our house with.

A good article in More Intelligent Life presents this fun factoid:

“Some lovers of the language deplore the whole business of verbing (Benjamin Franklin called it “awkward and abominable” in a letter to Noah Webster, the lexicographer, in 1789). . .”

If he wasn’t a fan of this sort of manipulation, I wonder how the elder statesman would have reacted to Philadelphia’s “Benergy” fiasco. I digress…

What do you think separates a good noun-verb functional variation from a ridiculous one?

How Safe Is Your Syntax From A Dangling Modifier?


Having determined that dangling modifiers make the writer look like a chump, Layman’s Terms will avoid them from now on.

Wait, wait…  Layman’s Terms didn’t determine anything. I did! For myself, at least. You probably knew it already. But it’s another rule of usage that was never on any test I took.

The worst ones sure do look bad. Bill Bryson uses “Handing me my whisky, his face broke into an awkward smile” as the poster pimple illustrating this syntactical blemish. It’s a funny one–the face hands the whisky.

But it’s not often that a truly egregious dangling modifier like it finds its way into print. I think our brains come standard with a low threshold for such jumbling.

Avoiding the passive voice is one way of staying out of trouble. Purdue University’s helpful online grammar site gives several examples of dangling modifiers, almost all of which flop because of passive voice in the main clause.

Here’s my modest proposal: Just don’t begin any sentences with modifying clauses. You’ll never get a dangler. And even when the modifier is clear about what it modifies, it usually sounds bad.

How many terrible bio blurbs begin with something like “A passionate world traveler, gourmande and djembe beater, Petunia Zickafoose is a polymath without equal…”? No laws are broken here, but it sets my AMATEUR! alarm blaring.

Put the main thing first, then tell more about it.

5 Bad Things I Do, 10 Ways I’m Getting Better

Self-diagnosis of problems has always been one of my core competencies. But finding problems is only worthwhile as a means of finding solutions. Today I’m going to try with five of the worst.

  • Running from stuckness – Is there any more familiar feeling in writing than not knowing what to write next? My instinct when I get stuck is to do anything else–Facebook, coffee refill, Burpees… All wrong. But I’m seeing that there is a pleasure in sitting with stuckness–a difficult pleasure, which is generally the best kind. It’s the feeling of the brain re-arranging in a good way. Going forward I will not only embrace stuckness, but also seek it out.
  • Undervaluing hours. Understanding the value of time–to the point where you base decisions on it–is the highest function of the human brain. I know I’ll never get that last hour back, and I know I’ll never get this one back if I piss it away. Why is this so hard to internalize? I’m fighting this one by disconnecting my internet whenever possible and using Google Calendar.
  • Taking criticism personally. This one is especially hard because, no matter how many times they say not to take it personally, all criticism is personal.  It may not be when it leaves the critic’s mouth or keyboard, but it always is by the time it reaches the end user. I find help here in humility, the unpalatable steamed broccoli of our instincts, and desire for growth, because growth only happens when others tell you what you can do better–even if most of them are idiots, which leads us to:
  • Contempt for the reader. You don’t get my unexplained Hamlet/Re-Animator mixed metaphor? Well **** you then, punk! There is nothing to win feeling smarter, better-read, or anything other than EXTREMELY GRATEFUL towards the people donating their attention to your writing. To this end I’m trying to emphasize communication over cleverness and assume the reader is the smartest person in the room.
  • Spelling “certain” “certian”. I think I spell pretty well, but this one just keeps happening. And I don’t have two solutions for this, so I guess I overpromised in the headline. I won’t do that again.

Layer Cake


This post is an attempt to intellectually recover the twenty minutes I just lost.

“Rule 2 

That introduces essential clauses while which introduces nonessential clauses.” 

Sounds good. So what is an “essential clause”?

“An essential clause is a relative clause that limits a general, ambiguous noun.

And a “relative clause”?

“A relative clause is a subordinate clause that modifies a noun phrase, most commonly a noun.”

And a “noun phrase”? The whole thing is a bulbous freakin’ Matryoshka Doll. Each new discovery places you farther from the truth. But this is the way it is. We have our primary colors–subject, verb, object–and the usually tacky adjective/adverb ornaments. The blank canvas is anywhere and everywhere, we just need to find new ways to fill it.

New rules of grammar and usage can only be defined in terms of the ones that came before–I just shudder to think of how many Wikipedia clickthroughs it’s going to take writers a generation from now to hit the bedrock of what they need to know.

In Transit

Contact.  As a transitive verb, the word is vague and self-important.  Do not contact anybody; get in touch with him, or look him up, or phone him, or find him, or meet him.

The Elements of Style

Or Facebook him!  Or Tweet at him!  Or Pin him!  Or get with the times and write “him or her”!

This one is going to have a hard time surviving.  Everyone contacts everyone now.  But the flailing glance at it in EOS at least forces us to look again at what a transitive verb is: A verb with a direct subject and object.

Two good examples:

“Brevity is the soul of wit”

“I hate the Drake”

An intransitive verb has no object:

“For those about to rock” (intransitive–rock what?)

We salute you, transitively.



avoid verbing and adjectiving nouns  Try not to verb nouns or to adjective them.  So do not: 

access files

author books. . .”


The Economist Style Guide

This is a joke, right?  I’m sorry–they’re having a laugh, right?  It’s like this clever list where every rule is stated in a way that breaks itself.

Saying “don’t verb the noun” VERBS THE NOUN!

Anyway, The Economist  has earned the benefit of the doubt in matters of English, being English and all.  More importantly I agree with the spirit of the law if not the letter of it.  The only thing I dread more than hearing “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” and “Silver Bells” every December is hearing talk of “gifting” things.

Authoring or worse, penning, something makes me want to chug a tall glass of ink.

On the other hand, I can’t say I have anything against pressuring someone to do something, or that I’m beefing about useful bits of slang finding slots in the tool belt.

P.S. Please check out this wine article I wrote recently.

Splat Infinitive

“One (misconception) is the belief that the split infinitive is a grammatical error.  It is not.  If it is an error at all, it is a rhetorical fault–a question of style–and not a grammatical one.  Another is the curiously persistent belief that the split infinitive is widely condemned by authorities.  That too is untrue.” 

-Bill Bryson, Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words

I’ve been called out a few times for splitting infinitives, and until recently accepted them as a venial grammar sin.  This never felt completely right to me, and it’s nice to see the record set straight.

Bryson continues:

“The problem of split infinitives arises because of a conflict between the needs of the infinitive and the needs of an adverb.  The natural position for the two elements of a full infinitive is together: ‘He proceeded to climb the ladder.’  With adverbs the most natural position is, very generally, just before the verb: ‘He slowly climbed the ladder.'”

Now we’re getting somewhere.  The interesting thing is the idea of a most natural position for an adverb.  Would “he climbed the ladder slowly” be less natural?  Not really.

But how about: “To go boldly where no man has gone before”?  Or: “To go where no man has gone before, boldly”?  Imagine Captain Kirk blurting out that mouthful of clay as the sleek frame of the Enterprise whooshes by.

So adverb placement can certainly change the aesthetics of our lines.  And adverbs are an especially portable part of speech–how often do you have three options about where to put your noun?

What’s tricky is how to locate the most aesthetically pleasing or “natural” position for an adverb, or for anything.   Yet somehow, we will.

You Phony

7.20 “For . . . sake” expressions

For the sake of euphony, a few for . . . sake expressions used with a singular noun that ends in an s end in an apostrophe alone, omitting the additional s.

for goodness’ sake
for righteousness’ sake”
The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th Edition

Euphony, huh?  Where else in English is euphony valued highly enough to throw a basic rule under the bus?  Chicago is steadfast about using an “s” after the apostrophe in all possessives, except here.

It seems like this is a nod to spoken English, where the sound of words is much harder to ignore.  Sound can’t be ignored completely in writing, but I can’t see why “for goodness’ sake” would be allowed except to make it easier to say and hear.   Especially since it’s spoken exactly like “goodness”.  Grammatically, it sounds wretched.  But it’s here to stay–no one wants to re-learn their Christmas songs.

Santa Claus is coming to town, fer Chrissakes.

Intent Unclear


will, would. . . .It is a question of clarity–of telling the difference between what may happen and what will happen.  If you write, “The plan will cost $400 million,” you are expressing a certainty. The plan either has been adopted or is certain to be adopted.   If you write, “The plan would cost $400 million,” the statement is clearly suppositional.  It is saying only that if the plan were adopted, it would cost $400 million.” 

-Bill Bryson, Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words

I still get this one wrong sometimes, like:

“I wouldn’t presume to know enough about English to start a writing blog.”

Really?  I wouldn’t?  I wouldn’t if what were the case?  Bryson is good to remind us that “will” is indicative (“expressing a simple statement of fact”) and “would” is subjunctive (“expressing what is imagined or wished or possible”).  So in the above sense, there needs to be an “if” somewhere, visible or implied, for “would” to fly.

Keep in mind that “if” doesn’t always require “would”, since “if” can put us in the conditional as well as the subjunctive.  When something is definitely going to happen, stick with the definite “will”.  Like:

“I will burst into tears if no one comments on this post.”