Monday, June 6, 2016

The New Yorker that and which

Mary Norris’s explanation of The New Yorker approach to that and which is likely, I think, to leave many viewers confused. The New Yorker follows Fowler’s Modern English Usage in using that with restrictive sentence elements and which with non-restrictive elements. The confusion comes with Norris’s sample sentences. Norris attributes these two (which she uses to introduce that and which ) to E. B. White:

The New Yorker is a magazine, which likes “that.”

The New Yorker is the magazine that likes “which.”
The second sentence is fine. But the first doesn’t make sense. It’s comparable to a sentence that says
Il Bambino is a restaurant, which serves paninis.
The unfortunate implication is that a magazine is a thing that likes the word that , and that a restaurant is an establishment that serves paninis.

Norris’s next example, in which that takes the place of which (“a fifty-two-thousand-square-foot gym that passersby sometimes mistake for a megachurch”) raises no complications. But her final example baffles me. What should The New Yorker use here, that , or which ?
[S]he suffered a series of pulled hamstrings, rolled ankles, and stress fractures that required cortisone shots in her elbow.

[S]he suffered a series of pulled hamstrings, rolled ankles, and stress fractures, which required cortisone shots in her elbow.
The New Yorker opted for which , a puzzling which . I would read the sentence as saying that this athlete suffered not just fractures but fractures that required cortisone shots. That’s how serious the fractures were. Norris herself says that that seems fine here. And which could be mistaken, if only for a moment, for the magazine’s irregular restrictive which , in which case it would be the entire series of injuries that required cortisone shots in the elbow (which of course would make no sense). The irregular restrictive which is a complication that Norris does not mention.

I appreciate what seems to be the intent behind these New Yorker videos: to offer the viewer a light-hearted, pain-free engagement with matters of grammar and usage (while proclaiming the magazine’s adherence to high standards). But the history and complications of that and which must be found elsewhere — in, for instance, the three columns of text devoted to the two words in Garner’s Modern English Usage .

Two related posts
Review of Norris’s Between You & Me

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