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.

Dashed off Quickly

I don’t have a ton to add to this great Grammar Girl post about parentheses vs. dashes vs. ellipses– (…?) only that I used to be profligate with parentheses and am not anymore, aside from emoticons which I should probably grow the hell up and stop using.

No, I like dashes now when I want to slam the brakes on a train of thought, throw another little one down, and then pick  the first one back up. And only when I read GG’s article just now did I realize why I made the transition from quieter parentheses to loud, dramatic dashes…

Because that’s how my brain was changing. Thanks to the increasing role of the internet in my life twelve-odd years ago, interruptions became the rule of law in my brain–and as the linked article (which you should go read now) explains, dashes communicate interruption like a champ.

So I wonder as all our minds become ever more interrupted, will the parentheses survive? Will quiet, gentle interruptions become a thing of the analog past?


Something that evokes Christopher Marlowe is “Marlovian.”

Something that evokes Saul Bellow is “Bellovian.”

Something that evokes George Bernard Shaw is “Shavian.” (That one is great.)

Something that evokes Edgar Allen Poe, is, I guess, “Poevian.”

These are kind of funny, right? Or at least peculiar. They remind us that words will never just exist on a page, because while there’s nothing inherently weird about reading “Shawian” or “Poeian,” there certainly is something weird about saying them.



The perils of connecting “Rock” to “Roll”

  1. “Rock n’ Roll”
  2. “Rock ‘n Roll”
  3. “Rock ‘n’ Roll”

Oxford New American gives its blessing to #3, but Oh Sherrie, err, oh man, do I see #1 and #2 used with reckless abandon everywhere and anywhere. We can probably agree that “rock ? roll” is all about reckless abandon so there’s no reason to get excited about the ambiguity.

As a replacer of letters, the apostrophe dates back to the 1500s (1500’s?) per the ONA. Since then it has been our magic bullet when we want to make stodgy words dance like colloquialisms.

In Eats, Shoots & Leaves Madame Lynne Truss draws the distinction between the way the apostrophe simply “indicates the omission of letters” and the way it “indicates strange non-standard English.”

So which is “Rock ‘n’ Roll”?  For that matter, which is “Pork ‘n’ Beans“?  An expedient omission or a piece of vernacular? Should we take the Oxfordians at their 24-carat word, or reinterpret the proper use every ten years like a true rock star?


I’ve Given Up, STOP!

“8. Use a dash to set off an abrupt break or interruption, and to announce a long appositive or summary.”

A dash is a mark of separation, stronger than a comma, less formal than a colon, and more relaxed than parentheses.”

The Elements of Style

I like “mark of separation”.  It is reassuringly informal.  Dashes, commas, colons, semicolons–for all their complex circuitry, all they really do is separate.  They make your brain (or breath, if you’re reading aloud) pause.

This supports a view I’ve always liked about punctuation, that it’s our best of our ultimately futile attempts to put the nuances of speech into print.  Have you ever written something to someone that offended them, but you know that if you had said it, they would have found it every bit as funny or empathetic as you?

Choose your pauses carefully.

The Comma Doctrine


“But with the governments who have declared their independence and maintained it, and whose independence we have, on great consideration and on just principles, acknowledged, we could not view any interposition for the purpose of oppressing them, or controlling in any manner their destiny, by any European power in any other light than as the manifestation of an unfriendly disposition towards the United States.”

-President James Monroe, seventh annual State of the Union address.  AKA “The Monroe Doctrine”, authored by Secretary of State John Quincy Adams.

I happened to stop by our fifth President’s former home today, and was struck by this extreme use of commas in his most permanent speech.  Little Adams strung sixty-four words together and separated them with six commas to leave us with this mega-sentence that still defines a certain approach to foreign policy.

This would never fly in on the NYT Op-Ed page or in any high school essay.  How many clauses can you stuff in behind your next period?  Two seems like the limit after which we need to think about a new sentence.  When communication is the absolute priority, one may be more sensible.


Halfway to Nowhere


I don’t think the semicolon will still be in common usage a generation from now.

I also think the numbers for tonight’s Powerball drawing will be 1, 6, 8, 35, 37 with Powerball 14.

Laugh it up, you sneering skeptics; at midnight I’ll have $98 million and you’ll have periods over commas.

In all seriousness, it seems–from my desk, at least–that written English is headed in a direction that does not favor the semicolon.  Since it first appeared in print (the year 1494, per Lynne Truss), disagreement has persisted about when and why to use it.

Debate is healthy in matters of punctuation, but eventually we reach a break point where everyone throws up their hands and walks away.  I think we’re just about there with the semicolon, despite recent helpful but probably too late attempts to clarify it.

In Eats, Shoots and Leaves, Truss quotes a Cecil Hartley:

The stops point out, with truth, the time of pause
A sentence doth require at ev’ry clause
At ev’ry comma, stop while one you count;
At semicolon, two is the amount;
A colon doth require the time of three;
The period four as learned men agree.

Gendered 19th-century word choice and treacly Britishness aside, I like the idea of comma-semicolon-colon-period tracing a continuum of timed pauses.  It’s easy to comprehend, and a good reminder that critical communicative things like pauses, tone, inflection, and even sarcasm are often lost in writing and we need to use every tool at our disposal to convey them accurately.

But the semicolon has none of the job security the other three have.  The comma is friendly and versatile.  The colon has, if nothing else, list introductions locked down. The period will survive nuclear war.

The semicolon not only must defend its territory from “long” commas and “short” colons (thinking of pause times), but also from the em dash which now seems preferred in less-than-formal writing to indicate that two-count.

And here’s the heart of it: The internet, the dominant publishing medium of today and tomorrow, favors less-than-formal writing.  That’s just a matter of numbers, which I wish I could cite exactly, viz. how many words are published online every day versus how many are printed every day.

My guess is that the em dash is going to gradually kill the semicolon.  Academics and other ultra-formal writers will hang on to the bitter end, and ; may retain some quaint/retro appeal like handwritten letters have, but as far as common usage in thirty years?

Check the punctuation lost and found, maybe it’s under the irony mark.

P.S. Here’s a good article about why I may be wrong here.