That or Which, and Why: A Usage Guide for Thoughtful Writers and Editors

Evan Jenkins, Routledge, 2007, 184pp, £21.99 (pbk), ISBN 978 0 415 977265

Reviewed by Gerard M-F Hill

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The title undersells it. But the subtitle tells you all – it's about 'preferred ways to use words … good choices'. Taken from his modestly named Language Corner in the Columbia Journalism Review, the entries – from 'A/An' to 'You, Understood' – encapsulate clear thinking, long experience and a love of language. There is no index, but there are plenty of cross-references – and some cross references.

As Stephen Leacock wrote, 'Writing is thinking'. Thinking brings clarity: why make the reader guess? They won't guess what '160% down' means, because it's meaningless, and it's equally useless to say 'between the cracks', because 'a metaphor should work literally as well as figuratively'. Jenkins has some fine examples of tautology too: 'fellow classmates' and 'the general consensus of opinion', not forgetting 'off of'.

Being a journalist (from whom we can learn a lot), he likes lean, accurate prose: 'it's kind to our readers, which is what we're about' (p46). So 'facility' (as in 'horse facilities') is 'flabby and irritating', and 'reference' (as a verb) is a poor substitute for the right word in context; 'literally' is 'awfully tired' and 'located' is usually redundant. He deplores bureaucratese, used by people 'for whom “prior to” is mandatory because “before” is plain English, and they can't have that'. Polysyllables don't impress him, whereas graffito is 'a nicety worth preserving'.

What about 'whom'? Jenkins is flexible: 'We can break the rule for fun', but he generally respects it; indeed, 'whom' is the longest piece in the book, and he parses sentences to clarify common problems. He is rightly wary of rules – 'any hard-and-fast rule is dangerous' – but ready to listen to the voice of experience or logic: 'some important arbiters still insist' (p61) or 'the rule has no underlying logic' (p33).

Curiously, the article on 'that/which' is not one of the best. He considers the rule arbitrary, and 'it ought to be done away with', but all his examples respect the usual practice of 'that' without commas and 'which' with commas to distinguish defining from non-defining clauses. Otherwise, his example would be ambiguous: 'The cars which were green failed to run'. He also finds it 'uncomfortable' to use 'that' without commas in a non-defining clause. He comments that British English often relies entirely on commas to make the distinction, and that seems to be his preference too.

This unpretentious book is the considered result of long experience, from Shakespeare to sports commentary, and a good read. Let Jenkins have the last word: 'Let's not let our language make us look foolish. That's what car phones are for.'

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