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Choosing the Right Pronoun

Ross at Play

One of the most frequently tricky dilemmas I find when writing and editing is finding the best pronoun, especially when the choice comes down to one of: that, which, it, and this.

I have noticed that some references mention American English distinguishes between that for restrictive uses and which for nonrestrictive uses, but that is rarely observed in British English.
That feels quite unnatural to me, my native language is British English, but I can see potential benefits from doing so.

I want to ask authors for examples where making these kinds of choices was difficult, what did they eventually decide? And why?

Switch Blayde

@Ross at Play

what did they eventually decide? And why?


I never gave it any thought. The decision is basically natural.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer

@Switch Blayde

I never gave it any thought. The decision is basically natural.

My rule of thumb is, ALWAYS use "which" whenever you can get away with it (i.e. it sounds natural), because "that" (like "had", "has" and "would") are vastly overused! It's like they say, I can't explain the grammatical rules governing their usage, but I recognize which to use when I see it on the page. Mostly it's a matter of authors never stopping to consider when to substitute "which" or even "who" (ex: "who did this" when referring to a person, instead of "that did this" when referring to an object).

Replies:   Ross at Play
Ross at Play

@Crumbly Writer

My rule of thumb is, ALWAYS use "which" whenever you can get away with it

I give that one my THUMBS UP! ;)

Which reminds me of most politically-incorrect and gross line I have ever managed to write. It answers the question of how to decide whether children who are too young to understand language are old enough for sex: ... it is always best to apply the General Rule of Thumb: does your thumb fit? :(

Ernest Bywater
Updated:

Not sure how well it applies to your question, however, the proper use of formal English has many cases where the word that should be used, but when you leave out the word that the sentence still makes complete sense - which is one reason why vernacular English is easier to write and read, since you can dump a lot of uses of the word that. Due to this I double check if I should use the word that when I go to type it in a story.

One thing I do know is my naturally usage of what word to use in some situations when you can use either that or which is to use which. An example is:

You should use the one that is appropriate.

You should use the one which is appropriate.

The words are totally interchangeable in the sentence above, but most English professors marking and essay would insist on you using the word that in the sentence.

Ross at Play

@Ernest Bywater

The words are totally interchangeable in the sentence above, but most English professors marking and essay would insist on you using the word that in the sentence.

I know I will come to regret having dived into this one. :)

If they are totally interchangeable in the vernacular (and obviously this would not apply to dialogue), I see no reason for not preferring what the professors consider "correct". Yes, choices like that may only be mandatory in formal writing, but why would you choose something that you know will be jarring to some readers when the choice does not matter to you?

I will amend my original question to: Does anyone know what anal academics prefer for choices between: that, which, it, and this?

Switch Blayde
Updated:

@Ross at Play

Does anyone know what anal academics prefer


Don't know about academics, but this is what Grammar Girl has to say about which vs that:

http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/which-versus-that-0

I used to work as a technical writer, and I'd often edit documents in which people used the wrong word. More than once, I'd put in the right word, only to have clients change a perfectly fine that to a which and send it back to me. In fact, having a client try to overrule my correction of a which to a that was one of the things that pushed me over the edge and made me start the Grammar Girl podcast.

Here's the deal: some people will argue that the rules are more complex and flexible than this, but I like to make things as simple as possible, so I say that you use that before a restrictive clause and which before everything else.

Ernest Bywater
Updated:

@Ross at Play


I see no reason for not preferring what the professors consider "correct".


Because the use of the word which is more natural when speaking and flows more smoothly when being read. Also, the word which indicates more of a choice than the word that does.

They aren't always interchangeable, but are most of the time.

edit to add: Often the use of the word that makes it sound more like an order than a selection.

awnlee jawking

@Ernest Bywater

You should use the one that is appropriate.


Grammar Girl would say that the above is correct because it's restrictive.

I've been down this rabbit hole and it's one of those never-ending sources of 'discussion' amongst grammaticists. Personally I go with whichever sounds more natural.

AJ

Replies:   Ernest Bywater
Ernest Bywater

@awnlee jawking

Personally I go with whichever sounds more natural.


I agree with that. However, that doesn't always apply with formal or technically correct English grammar.

Ross at Play
Updated:

Is wanting to know what is correct for formal writing a sin? ... he asked rhetorically.

Ernest Bywater

@Ross at Play

Is wanting to know what is correct for formal writing


Formal writing is for business letters, technical works, text books. Stories written in formal English don't flow, sound stilted, and aren't as enjoyable as stories written in the vernacular.

Replies:   Ross at Play
Ross at Play

@Ernest Bywater

Formal writing is for business letters, technical works, text books. Stories written in formal English don't flow, sound stilted, and aren't as enjoyable as stories written in the vernacular.

I know that. You know I know that.
I'm asking about a simple word choice here, this word or that word, maybe which words? Whatever it is.
There's no reason to assume I've been converted by the Dark Side just because I'm asking what they would do in specific situations.

awnlee jawking

@Ross at Play

Is wanting to know what is correct for formal writing a sin? ... he asked rhetorically.


A rhetorical question with a question mark! Not my choice but...

I'm not sure grammaticists are always correct.

Scientists formulate theories based on existing data. If subsequent data contradicts those theories, the scientists reject or amend them.

Grammaticists formulate rules based on historical data. If people ignore those rules, grammaticists insist their rules are correct and people are wrong.

The scientific method in action...NOT!

AJ

Replies:   REP
REP

@awnlee jawking

If people ignore those rules, grammaticists insist their rules are correct and people are wrong.


That is probably because grammarians do not want to acknowledge that the English language is in a state of constant evolution, and they don't like change. :)

Replies:   awnlee jawking
awnlee jawking

@REP

That is probably because grammarians do not want to acknowledge that the English language is in a state of constant evolution, and they don't like change. :)


IIRC, initial attempts to codify English grammar were initially based around the structure of Latin. Some concepts, like Linking Verbs, are relatively recent and IMO have never accurately reflected English usage.

AJ

Replies:   REP
Ross at Play

Please just go away, you lot.
The sky will still rise tomorrow if you allow a post including the words "formal writing" to pass without you proving your macho credentials by asserting you don't follow anyone elses' rules.
Here's a newsflash for you ... most of us here already know formal writing is sometimes not suitable for fiction.
... And frankly, I'm with that well known grammar Nazi, Grammar Girl, on this one, i.e, prefer 'that' when the use is restrictive.

Crumbly Writer
Updated:

@Ernest Bywater


The words are totally interchangeable in the sentence above, but most English professors marking and essay would insist on you using the word that in the sentence.


My rule of thumb is:

1) If you can eliminate it without losing the meaning, delete it.

2) If you can use "which", use it, as it's always better simply because it's not as overused.

3) If it refers to a person, instead of an inanimate object, use "who".

Replies:   Ross at Play
REP

@awnlee jawking

True. A grammarian's rules apply to a fixed target. English is a moving target, so rules that apply to English as used 2 years ago may not apply to current English usage. Although I would not expect major changes in that short of the timeframe.

Replies:   Switch Blayde
sejintenej

@Ernest Bywater

You should use the one that is appropriate.

You should use the one which is appropriate.

The words are totally interchangeable in the sentence above, but most English professors marking and essay would insist on you using the word that in the sentence.

In my (totally ignorant) view the sentence implies that there is a choice to be made. When you are choosing one of several alternatives "which" appears more appropriate.

I do wonder about professors in ivory towers, especially as ivory is banned

Ross at Play

@Crumbly Writer

If you can use "which", use it, as it's always better simply because it's not as overused.

I agree it always best to do almost anything consistently.
As an objective, minimising the overuse of 'that' is certainly a laudable one.
The dictionary.com listing of 'that' provides 6 meanings as a pronoun, 3 as an adverb, 3 as an adjective, and 2 as a conjunction.
Even if you find and delete all the times your computer has slipped extra ones while you weren't watching, it still has very many legitimate and necessary uses.

Thanks for the constructive suggestions.

awnlee jawking

@sejintenej

I do wonder about professors in ivory towers, especially as ivory is banned


I don't understand why some enterprising Korean scientist hasn't taken some pachydermal stem cells and used them to grow posh chalk in nutrient tanks. Win-win: no need to kill elephants and rhinos, and far easterners can continue their cultural superstitions.

AJ

Switch Blayde

@REP

English is a moving target, so rules that apply to English as used 2 years ago may not apply to current English usage


English is a moving target (or evolving) not because something new is discovered, but because people use grammar incorrectly and when enough people do that the rules change to accommodate the incorrect use (so it's now acceptable).

It's basically: "If everyone does it wrong, we'll say it's correct so they are no longer wrong."

Ross at Play

@sejintenej

In my (totally ignorant) view the sentence implies that there is a choice to be made. When you are choosing one of several alternatives "which" appears more appropriate.

That suggests what anal academics "know" is correct is the direct opposite of what 'appears more appropriate' to others.
'Choosing one of several alternatives' is precisely how academics define "restrictive" use, and they insist 'that' is correct when use is restrictive, and "which" for anything else.

If it made no difference to non-academic readers, my inclination would be to do what the academics do. If non-academic readers favour the opposite interpretation to academics it's probably wise to not make decisions based on whether or not it is restrictive (a choice).
Which suggests what CW does makes good sense, i.e. preferring any alternative to 'that' which does not sound wrong.

Replies:   awnlee jawking
Ross at Play

@Switch Blayde

It's basically: "If everyone does it wrong, we'll say it's correct so they are no longer wrong."

And perhaps 50 years later, CMOS will say, "It's still wrong, but we will no longer send out a team to hunt you down and castrate you if you do it."

awnlee jawking

@Ross at Play

You should use the one which is appropriate.


I think 'which' sounds more natural in this case. I'm tempted to compare it with 'You should use whichever is appropriate'. Okay, the meaning has changed slightly but there is a 'which' lurking in there ;)

AJ

Replies:   Ross at Play  REP
REP
Updated:

@Switch Blayde


we'll say it's correct so they are no longer wrong."


I know SB. I don't necessarily agree with what is, but I try to acknowledge it when I think it is true.

That is one of the reasons why I don't trust the meanings of words that I find in a dictionary. The dictionary will change the meaning to reflect what people currently mean by the word.

edit to add: and they don't always provide the prior definition.

Ross at Play

@awnlee jawking

You should use the one which is appropriate.
I think 'which' sounds more natural in this case.

That's another voter who says they do the opposite thing to academics.

I just noticed that "which is" cannot reasonably be contracted, while "this is" in the same sentence can be.

REP

@awnlee jawking

appropriate


That is very true AJ. However, the question becomes "appropriate" to whom and what is their basis for determining appropriate.

To the grammarian citing the rules of grammar, "that would be correct. To a reader who is not concerned with the rules either would probably be acceptable.

To me, "that" seems to be an authoritarian usage, while "which" seems casual.

Ross at Play

So we're all agreed that that is horrible, yet we still keeping writing that (excuse me!) ... writing it. ;)

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Dominions Son

@Switch Blayde

English is a moving target (or evolving) not because something new is discovered, but because people use grammar incorrectly and when enough people do that the rules change to accommodate the incorrect use (so it's now acceptable).

It's basically: "If everyone does it wrong, we'll say it's correct so they are no longer wrong."


Treason never prospers, for if it does prosper, none dare call it treason.

Crumbly Writer

@Switch Blayde

English is a moving target (or evolving) not because something new is discovered, but because people use grammar incorrectly and when enough people do that the rules change to accommodate the incorrect use (so it's now acceptable).

Nah, every young adult (from 14 to 28) insists of speaking so they're 'old folks' can't understand them. When their friends hear them, they think it's 'cool', so it catches on. When enough begin using it, it's accepted (by the populous). 50 years later, it's finally accepted by the grammarians. Now, in order to appeal to the youth market, dictionaries are desperately grasping at any new word they can, at which point everyone (young and old), abandons it!

They just can't win. They need to accept that no one will ever listen to their dictates!

Crumbly Writer

@Ross at Play

So we're all agreed that that is horrible, yet we still keeping writing that (excuse me!) ... writing it. ;)

Don't get me started on "it". While I try to eliminate as many "that"s as I can, I'm ALWAYS dropping "it" everywhere I turn. However, if I replace it with what 'it' references, it just sound WRONG! (too formal)

Replies:   Ross at Play  REP
Ross at Play

@Crumbly Writer

every young adult (from 14 to 28) insists of speaking so they're 'old folks' can't understand them

So how did you speak approximately 32 to 46 years ago?

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Ross at Play

@Crumbly Writer

Don't get me started on "it".

Any suggestions on how you choose when you're stuck in between a lion (that) and a tiger (it)?

Replies:   Switch Blayde
Switch Blayde

@Ross at Play

Any suggestions on how you choose when you're stuck in between a lion (that) and a tiger (it)?


What am I missing? "That" and "it" aren't the same. Both a lion and tiger are "it."

Replies:   Ross at Play
Switch Blayde

@Crumbly Writer

When their friends hear them, they think it's 'cool', so it catches on.


I believe you're talking about new words, not grammar.

Speaking of which, did you ever see the movie "Akeelah and the Bee"? If you haven't watch it. Great movie. The Laurence Fishburne character was s stuck-up head of the English department at UCLA. He scolded Akeelah for using street words. At one point she said she didn't mean to dis him. He jumped all over her until she showed it to him in the dictionary.

btw, is it "Speaking of which," or "Speaking of that,"? I think "which is correct. Maybe it's an idiom.

REP

@Crumbly Writer

I'm ALWAYS dropping "it" everywhere I turn.

I have been trying to do that also. I find I become repetitive. :)

REP

@Switch Blayde

"Speaking of which," or "Speaking of that,"?


I use both to avoid repetition. A grammarian would say "that" because the intent is to restrict the question to a specific thing. :)

Replies:   awnlee jawking
Ross at Play

@Switch Blayde

What am I missing? "That" and "it" aren't the same. Both a lion and tiger are "it."

They are indeed not the same. What you are "missing" is it's not clear to me what the distinction between them is.
It is simple that 'it' is preferred for physical objects, but it is not as simple as that! If you know what I mean? I really don;t know.

PotomacBob

@Ross at Play

The rule is: "if it sounds funny, change it."

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Ross at Play

@Switch Blayde

At one point she said she didn't mean to dis him. He jumped all over her until she showed it to him in the dictionary.

My dictionary 'as 'dis' too, but it donna 'ave dat. 'Ow do Cajuns cope wid dat?

Replies:   sejintenej
sejintenej

@Ross at Play

My dictionary 'as 'dis' too, but it donna 'ave dat. 'Ow do Cajuns cope wid dat?

My understanding is that Cajun stems from the so-called French which Canadian residents took with them when they were chucked out of Canada. Of course it has been mixed up with other languages but perhaps it is a separate language deserving of a separate dictionary just as Texas Spanish should have its own dictionary or International Drive should have a Portuguese dictionary?

In this context my son-in-law showed me his dictionary of Yorkshire to English. One third of the words were mispronounced English but the couple of pages I checked every non-"English" word was in my Norwegian dictionary with the same meaning. Therefore is "Yorkshire" English, Norwegian or Yorkshire? Similarly Cajun?

Ross at Play
Updated:

@sejintenej


Therefore is "Yorkshire" English, Norwegian or Yorkshire?


I was just 'at Play', and have no facts to justify my post. I just looked up "dis 'n' dat" and found "Cajuns" ... the rest is pure crap I invented.

You have real history in your post. Danish Vikings ruled and procreated across Yorkshire for roughly the entire tenth century. Was the language of Danish Vikings similar to Norwegian now? Probably. Fwom wo' I've 'eard, wun bludy Viking's da same as d'udder blud-dursty wun.

Replies:   ustourist  sejintenej
awnlee jawking

@REP

Another example of grammarians bringing in rules that don't reflect reality - in the UK, it would be 'speaking of which' every time.

AJ

Replies:   Switch Blayde
awnlee_jawking

@sejintenej

Cajun stems from the so-called French which Canadian residents took with them when they were chucked out of Canada


But Louisiana was originally a French territory. Surely French would have been spoken there before the French lost Canada.

AJ

Replies:   sejintenej
Ernest Bywater
Updated:

Just an idle question (probably one by Eric Idle) - If I don't like the Right Pronoun can I choose a nice amateur noun?

typo edit

ustourist

@Ross at Play

A (now deceased) friend of mine was captured during WWII and placed in a POW camp. He escaped and reached Denmark. Although he couldn't understand the written language, he didn't have too much problem with the spoken side due to the fact it was so close to his native Yorkshire accent.
(Yorkshiremen are also known as tykes, which is another word for mongrel. Is that possibly connected to the Viking settlements and interbreeding?)
Which makes me wonder if Geordies would be understood in Denmark or Norway, because sure as hell the English find them difficult to understand even when they are sober.

Replies:   Ross at Play  sejintenej
Switch Blayde

@awnlee jawking

Another example of grammarians bringing in rules that don't reflect reality - in the UK, it would be 'speaking of which' every time.


I believe in the US too.

Ross at Play
Updated:

@ustourist

Yorkshiremen are also known as tykes, which is another word for mongrel.

According to dictionary.com, the origin was an Old Norse word, tik, meaning bitch.

Curiously, Australians adopted the word during WWII as a derogatory term for Roman Catholics - as if we didn't have enough derogatory terms for them already.

... because sure as hell the English find (Geordies) difficult to understand even when they are sober.

How long did it take you to find one who was sober to test that theory?

Replies:   awnlee jawking
awnlee jawking

@Ross at Play

How long did it take you to find one who was sober to test that theory?


About half as long as it took him to find a geordie female over 11 who was still a virgin ;)

AJ

Replies:   Ross at Play
Ross at Play

@awnlee jawking

About half as long as it took him to find a geordie female over 11 who was still a virgin

Like!
And your methodology for that search was ... ?

Crumbly Writer

@Ross at Play

So how did you speak approximately 32 to 46 years ago?

I was part of the 'up and coming' surfer culture, so everything was "gnarly" and "tubular", man!

Crumbly Writer

@Switch Blayde

btw, is it "Speaking of which," or "Speaking of that,"? I think "which is correct. Maybe it's an idiom.

I suspect it's both, "speaking of which" is correct and it's considered and idiom.

Crumbly Writer

@PotomacBob

The rule is: "if it sounds funny, change it."

Actually the complete rule is: If it sounds funny, change it, but if it generates a laugh, keep it! (just ask any comedian)

sejintenej
Updated:

@awnlee_jawking


Cajun stems from the so-called French which Canadian residents took with them when they were chucked out of Canada

But Louisiana was originally a French territory. Surely French would have been spoken there before the French lost Canada.


Quite a bit more complicated than that.

I started off with a smattering of info from a Cajun transplanted elsewhere in the USA who is an SOL author.

A few important dates:

1682 - 1762 Louisiana was French

1762 - 1802 Louisiana was Spanish

1802 Spain returned Louisiana to France

1803 the Louisiana Purchase (by the fledgling USA)

1789 the start of the French Revolution.

Up to the French Revolution France had two language systems, each with multiple local dialects. They were known by the word for yes: Oc and Oïl. **

Canada was populated by people from the north west of France and spoke a variant of Oïl; I don't know about the Louisiana settlers but they were there before the Revolution (which is critical).

With the Revolution an old idea of a standard language was enforced - it was an amalgam of five patois from the Paris area. This was/is French (Français). Thus French as we know it would not have been spoken in Louisiana.

** For those who speak/read French here is a page in an Oïl patois called Jerrais which is still an official national language (maintained by an OB I was at school with!)

http://members.societe-jersiaise.org/geraint/jerriais.html

For those who speak/read Spanish here is a sample of one of the nine major patois of Oc which is still the national language of Andorre and Cataluña and is still used in southern France

http://www.iec.cat/activitats/entrada.asp

edited for more clarity

sejintenej

@ustourist

(Yorkshiremen are also known as tykes, which is another word for mongrel. Is that possibly connected to the Viking settlements and interbreeding?)

Tyke in Norwegian means thick or dense. It had this same meaning in South Devon when referring to a youth.

sejintenej
Updated:

@Ross at Play


You have real history in your post. Danish Vikings ruled and procreated across Yorkshire for roughly the entire tenth century. Was the language of Danish Vikings similar to Norwegian now? Probably. Fwom wo' I've 'eard, wun bludy Viking's da same as d'udder blud-dursty wun.


I learned Norwegian up in the north where they used an old form **. Later I attended a wedding in Denmark close to the German border. Apart from making them slow down the Danish bride's family and friends and I could understand each other with no problem.

**That form was in use before the changes to remove Danish and Swedish influences. .

Capt. Zapp

@sejintenej

Tyke in Norwegian means thick or dense. It had this same meaning in South Devon when referring to a youth.


My son just became a teen and has definitely started acting like a Tyke (Tykish?). ;)

Replies:   Crumbly Writer  REP
awnlee jawking

@sejintenej

Tyke in Norwegian means thick or dense. It had this same meaning in South Devon when referring to a youth.


My Yorkshire born-and-bred relatives use tyke to mean a young child.

AJ

Replies:   Ross at Play
Ross at Play

@awnlee jawking

My Yorkshire born-and-bred relatives use tyke to mean a young child.

Now that has been mentioned, it seems a very familiar use to me in Australia. Perhaps a teenager among adults, but always young.

Crumbly Writer

@Capt. Zapp

My son just became a teen and has definitely started acting like a Tyke (Tykish?). ;)

For my kids (and cousins, nephews, etc.), I prefer "nitwits".

Replies:   REP
REP

@Capt. Zapp

has definitely started acting like a Tyke


While in Germany, I was told Dick has the same meaning, thick or dense.

REP

@Crumbly Writer

I prefer "nitwits".


Many of us call it being a teenager.

Crumbly Writer

Choosing the Right Pronoun: I prefer SHIT, S[He]/IT. 'D

Replies:   Ross at Play
Ross at Play

@Crumbly Writer

Choosing the Right Pronoun: I prefer SHIT, S[He]/IT. 'D

Or the Third-Person Impersonal Pronouns: pee, spew or spit.

richardshagrin

Take your choice, defecate or constipate. Most of us older folk would prefer to be a teenager again than have our present bodies.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer

@richardshagrin

Most of us older folk would prefer to be a teenager again than have our present bodies.

Not quite. Most of us older folks would prefer to have those younger bodies, in both sense of the word. Though what we'd do, once we got them, is anyone's guess. (Though we'd at least have to wait an hour for the Viagra to kick in.)

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