That which

October 28, 2013 § Leave a comment

I’m about ready to give up on the difference between fewer and less, although my tweet on that subject remains one of the most popular I’ve ever written. It went something like:

Please. If you can count them, it’s fewer. If you can’t, it’s less. Fewer cows, less beef.

To which a clever person replied:

Less beef, fewer steaks.

Fewer steaks, less fat….and so on. But fewer is losing the battle. Here’s a grab from NAB’s latest promotion:

nabThat would be fewer fees. Fewer fees, less rage at bank profits, am I right?

So let’s move on to that and which. One of them is extensively overused. Which? Correct.

Here’s what to do.

  1. If you can leave the phrase out entirely, you can start it with which.
  2. If the phrase can be enclosed by commas (or brackets) you can start it with which.
  3. Look. Use more of that, and less of which.

Here are six correct uses of which and that:

The monkeys, which are highly trained, work hard.
The monkeys that are highly trained work hard.

The chicken, which is raw, will make you sick.
The chicken that is raw will make you sick.

The comments, which are stupid, should not be read.
The comments that are stupid should not be read.

In the first of each of these examples, ALL of the monkeys, chicken and comments meet the condition. The monkeys work hard. The chicken will make you sick. The comments should not be read.

In the second of each of these examples, only SOME of them meet the condition. There is an implication that some monkeys are undertrained slackers, that there is well-cooked chicken available if you look for it, and that some comments are worth reading.

Here’s Mark Kenny getting it wrong twice in the same sentence:

But there are legitimate doubts as to whether all of these activities when aggregated, are compatible with being prime minister – a job which on a light day wants 14 hours of his time and which wants it seven days a week.

If you remove, comma or bracket the phrase beginning with which, you’re just left with the prime minister having a job, which is obviously not true.

Let’s face it. Which is to that as less is to fewer.

But journalism is a job that wants good grammar.


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