"The Writer's Art" author James J. Kilpatrick, a noted basher of the pronoun which, is back with another broadside, and this time he has a cohort in Randy Miller, an editor at the Hawk Eye newspaper in Burlington, Iowa.
Kilpatrick quotes Miller thusly:
He writes: "We know, and tell young reporters, that in most cases nearly all of their thats can be usefully deleted. But what about their whiches? We have a sports reporter who tends toward hyperbole in his writing. Readers love it, but the rest of us cringe. Here's a recent example:
"FARMINGTON -- A high school football program which has not made the playoffs in its 47-year history suddenly turns the table, making the postseason. . . . A team which had been down on its luck, a team which had won just 12 games in the previous five seasons, a team which had not had a winning season since 2002, suddenly becomes a postseason qualifier. A team which had become almost a laughingstock to its opponents suddenly becomes a force to be reckoned with, a team which has brought several communities together with a common purpose."
I'm going to take several issues with all of this.
First, is Miller's gripe the hyperbole or all the instances of which that should be that? It's hard to tell from what he says. If it's the former, there's a simple solution: editing and counsel. If it's the latter, there's a similarly simple solution: editing and counsel. Writing to James J. Kilpatrick rates as a distant third option.
Second, Miller's point about excising that is, at best, debatable. As I've written before, I find myself inserting that more frequently than I remove it.
Third, I'm not sure what purpose is served by making an example of a colleague in a column that is published nationwide. I figured out the writer's name with a simple search of the Hawk Eye's Web site. Anyone who wanted to ridicule him could do the same thing, and what good would that do?
Fourth, ridicule is not what this writer needs. Instead, a short lesson on the difference between a restrictive clause and a non-restrictive clause, and how that and which come to bear, would do wonders in improving his writing. If I seem a little ticked off by this, it's only because I am.
Finally, while I appreciate the larger point that Kilpatrick is attempting to make, I can't endorse his strident way of making it.
Here's another piece of the column:
Let us turn to that brilliant lexicographer, Bryan Garner, in his Modern American Usage. He begins his entry on which with characteristic restraint:
"This word, used immoderately, is possibly responsible for more bad sentences than any other in the language."
My advice to writers isn't so restrained: When you feel an urge to use which, lie down until the spasm goes away.
I would submit that prohibiting a perfectly useful, if occasionally unwieldy, word is not an artful way of writing, any more than using a bulldozer is an artful way of trimming the hedges.