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May 18, 2011


Norman Otto Stockmeyer

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Andrej Starkis

That which annoys is often that which is commonly misunderstood by those who would presume to teach others. Assuming he's been paraphrased correctly, Justice Roberts is wrong when he implies that "which" is to be used when "that" will not do. Mr. Roy then--either in a typo or an effort to placate the Chief Justice--misuses "that" (in a place where only "which" makes sense). Then Mr. Gibson compounds the confusion when he misrepresents what an "independent clause" is to explain the difference between "that" and "which."
Language does not stand still, and we're all occasionally sinners in pinning our prose to paper or exposing it electronically. But there are important ways (I'm avoiding the word "rules" here) in which to enhance communication through clarity and simplicity.
While "that" has more functions in the language (here, I'm avoiding the unfortunate phrase "parts of speech"), than does "which," they are often interchangeable when functioning as nouns that start adjective clauses ("relative pronouns" for you grammar junkies). The preference for one or the other is sometimes culturally based. Our British cousins, for example, tend to favor "which." (Hence the Chief's association of the word with stuffy prose.) The reason for preferring "that"--particularly in legal writing, where precision may be vital--is its limitation to "restrictive" adjective clauses. It can't be used (i.e., it makes no sense to the reader or listener) to start a "non-restrictive" clause (what Mr. Gibson meant by "independent clause").
For those now thoroughly confused, a restrictive modifier is one that helps identify who or what one is talking about: "the book that I gave you yesterday". A non-restrictive modifier is an extra oh-by-the-way bit of information about that person or thing: "grammar, which is often poorly taught".
Quiz tomorrow at 10:00.

camillas jenkins

The old journalist's rule is "watch your whiches". Strunk and White says, "It would be a convenience to all if" that and which were "used with precision... The careful writer goes which hunting." Their rule:
-- The lawn mower that is broken is in the garage. (tells which one)
-- The lawn mower, which is broken, is in the garage. (adds a fact about the only mower in question)

Jill Smith

The Oxford English Dictionary is a descriptive dictionary, listing usages of a word over the century. It is not a prescriptive dictionary in terms of identifying appropriate vs. nonstandard word usages. Hence, while the OED is valuable in documenting the history of a word, it is not as useful in indicating whether a word is appropriately used in a specific manner.


Impact is in the Oxford dictionary as both a verb and a noun. So, maybe it is time for someone to put his quirks aside?

Bikash Roy

It is distressing to learn that the use of some words rather than others may tick off a judge. Judges need to rise above that. Justice Ginsburg is right about honesty that extends not only to characterizing the appealed order but to the facts of the case and to the substance of the opposing argument.
More important than mere brevity is clarity with that one weaves together fact and legal argument to clarify the issues for decision. So my personal goals in legal writing would be accuracy, clarity, brevity, in that order. Possibly less common at the level of US Supreme Court advocacy but irksome nonetheless are the various cheap debating tricks of trial and run-of-the-mill appellate "advocacy." My personal favorite is requesting the court to not consider extra-jurisdictional authority while freely citing such authority oneself. Should be downright sanctionable!

Howard Gibson

Justice John Roberts is mistaken if he thinks "that" and "which are grammatically interchangeable. "That" introduces a dependent clause; "which introduces an independent clause (a clause that adds information to the sentence but isn't essential to its meaning).

"That" might "have better pace to it" (whatever that means) but using "that" to introduce an independent clause is non-starter.

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