Have you tried the new reduced whiches and thats diet?

You don’t have to be a professional writer to benefit from making your writing sound more natural. The words which or that are often stodgy and unnecessary. Following Strunk and White’s helpful suggestion – under their banner ‘Omit needless words’ – it’s good to go which hunting.

Here is the first paragraph from the lavish prospectus of an English private school:

[School name] pupils receive an outstanding academic education from dedicated and well-qualified teachers, developing qualities which will equip them to face life’s challenges with self belief and optimism. In addition to our broad curriculum, girls and boys enjoy a fabulous range of activities which keep them busy, stimulated and entertained, helping them to find their niche. It is a source of pride to us that our pupils emerge as confident, competent and adaptable human beings.

A modest rewrite goes:

[School name] pupils receive an outstanding academic education from dedicated and well-qualified teachers. Our broad curriculum equips them to face life’s challenges with self belief and optimism. Girls and boys enjoy a fabulous range of activities, helping them find their niche and keeping them busy, stimulated and entertained. We are proud our pupils are confident, competent and adaptable.

The first version is stiff, over-anxious about wanting to be ‘correct’; here hyper-correctness in public seems to be more important than sense and self-expression. Worryingly, their writing style fights against the values they claim to endorse.

There are very few pieces of writing which cannot be improved by removing whiches. We can improve nearly everything we write by removing its whiches. Even the very minor change of which to that in the school prospectus would have helped – that seems more readable to me.

The words aren’t interchangeable, though. Describing the that/which restrictive/nonrestrictive clause distinction is horribly technical – how come language isn’t good at describing itself? But the distinction itself seems natural/sensible to me, and easy enough: if the subordinate clause needs commas, use which. Word’s automatic grammar check is also genuinely useful and almost reliable on this point. But often the resulting sentence is still clumsy. The New York Times 2008 discussion of mistakes in its own pages gives this example:

The depths of G.M.’s problems came to light in its federal filing that painted a bleak picture of a company that has lost more than $20 billion this year and is in danger of not being able to pay its bills in a few weeks.

Philip B. Corbett, The New York Times associate managing editor for standards, suggests they should have replaced the bold that with a comma and which. But the better suggestion is surely rewriting:

G.M.’s federal filing revealed a bleak picture of a company that has lost more than $20 billion this year and is in danger of not being able to pay its bills in a few weeks.

The way in which is one of my least favourite word combinations. I will, I state on public record, eat my cycling helmet if anyone can find it in Shakespeare or the King James edition of the Bible. On The Beatles’ Abbey Road album George Harrison sings ‘Something in the way she moves’. I cannot believe this would have been the second-most covered Beatles song (after ‘Yesterday’) if it had an added in which.

Removing thats is good too. Reading out loud, most thats sound as the toneless schwa vowel, such as the er in dinner, or e in the. This is a rather dull noise. But if we fully voice the a to sound like cat or Jack it sounds artificial and much too prominent, like quacking.

Most thats are the nervous written equivalent of hiatus-fillers like um or er. That is rarer in speech than in writing, so writing without it sounds more natural and direct. I was tempted to put a that in ‘We are proud our pupils’, i.e. ‘We are proud that our pupils’, but I think it sounds more natural without.

My most hated written word cluster ever is the fact that. Here is a very unfair example from Huw Price, Bertrand Russell Professor of Philosophy, University of Cambridge. It is unfair because my source presumably transcribes a telephone interview – but I’ll use it anyway because plenty of people write like this. He is explaining the thinking behind a new Centre for the Study of Existential Risk:

The basic philosophy is that we should be taking seriously the fact that we are getting to the point where our technologies have the potential to threaten our own existence – in a way that they simply haven’t up to now, in human history.

The fact that helps writers put ideas down in the order they think of them. But I am shocked. Writing is for readers; it is rude for authors to disregard the delicate and generous gift of attention their readers give them. I quite often come across The fact that [something] meant that [another thing] … For my private amusement I sometimes try to parody authors’ stylistic mannerisms using a well known and simple sentence. Here this becomes: The fact that there was a mat resulted in the fact that the cat sat on it.

In the perfect world, writing completely, simply and only makes sense. Meanwhile, until that world comes along, why not try fewer whiches and thats?

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About Propagandum

I’ve been working in book publishing for over 30 years – an industry now in rapid transition. So I’m interested in foundational principles for media, writing and language – what lessons can we learn for how we can and should communicate? How can we make sense of media/technology? Can we transfer some skills from the old to the new? I hope to share (every week-ish) some things I think are wonderful, rich and important. I write longish posts because our complex and fascinating world cannot be reduced to soundbites. Please let me know what you think – contact me at david@propagandum.com
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