Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Rules Which...I Mean That Make Sense

Writers often rail against rules. They don't want to avoid the passive voice, maintain a consistent point of view, avoid adjectives and shun adverbs. We would rather write the words that seem to flow from our fingertips onto the computer, letting the chips fall where they may. After all, that's where an editor comes in--right?

Unfortunately, the less editing a manuscript requires, the better the chances that it will make it out of the slush pile and into the long journey from editor to editorial board to publications board to publisher to a contract to publication. So we learn the rules and follow them--most of the time.

One of the problems I have is remembering whether to use "which" or "that." That's why I was so happy to find this particular post (thank you, Google) that puts it into perspective. Sure, we can try to remember the rule that "that" is used in conjunction with a restrictive clause, while "which" goes with a non-restrictive clause. But ten minutes after reading the rule, I ask myself, "Now how did that go again?" But the Grammar Girl gave me something to help me remember: You can throw out the "witches" and do no harm. That is, if the clause can be removed without changing the sense of the sentence, use "which."

Those little tips, clues, and helpful mnemonics, have assisted me through life. I learned the names of the twelve cranial nerves by memorizing "On old Olympus' towering tops, a Finn and German viewed some hops." In golf, I remember that an uphill lie encourages a hook, a downhill lie a slice, by reciting under my breath, "Hook up, slice down."

So there you have it. Three helpful "rules" for writers, medical students, and golfers. Are there rules you follow in your life, and do you use tools to aid your memory? I'd like to hear.


Jan Cline said...

I do use tools to help me with grammar and sentence structure, but once in a while I just plain like the way it is and leave it! I'm usually a rule follower - it's knowing the rule first that is the hard part.

Richard Mabry said...

Jan--and you used "that" correctly...I think. Appreciate your comment.

By the way--does anyone else think the new "captcha" word verifications are terrible? I've sent them feedback, with no results.

Jan Cline said...

Hate them. They make me feel blind and stupid.

Mocha with Linda said...

I agree: the new word verification is obnoxious! They are so hard to read.

I laughed at the cranial nerve mnemonic! I learned that one too! I had a wonderful high school teacher that taught us tricks to remember how to keep straight the difference in similar words and those have always stuck with me. Examples are stationary vs. stationery: stationary/place both have a's while stationery/letter both have e's. And my favorite: desert vs. dessert: you always want to eat more than one cookie, so dessert is the one with two s's!

And then there's the one that I wish people would pay attention to today. NEVER use "____ and I" as an object (he gave it to my wife and I.") Always do it without "my wife" first - if it's "he gave it to me" then "he gave it to my wife and me." Makes me crazy how folks misuse the pronoun I.

Stepping away from my soapbox! (I am such a grammar geek! After having that teacher, I thought about majoring in English instead of nursing! LOL)

Richard Mabry said...

Linda, If you learned the cranial nerves as a health care professional, you probably know there's a slightly less G rated version of the mnemonic--which I chose to avoid.

Thanks for your comment and for agreeing with me about the terrible change in Captcha verification.

Katie said...

This isn't so much with which/that but I have also been taught that "that" is often a superfluous word. This idea flies in the face of your witches motto. Sorry.

<>< Katie

Richard Mabry said...

Katie, It's not my rule (I gave the hyperlink), but rather one that seemed to make sense for me.
As always, in grammar and in life, my motto is "Whatever works." Thanks for stopping by.

Katie said...

I more meant the rule you presented rather than the one you created. Sorry for the confusion.

<>< Katie

Richard Mabry said...

Katie, my tongue was firmly in my cheek when I typed that last comment. Seriously, I appreciate your comment. (And I thrive on confusion--36 years practicing medicine will do that for you).
Best wishes.

Deb said...

ROFL on the captcha words! Half the time I enter them incorrectly and just give up. I've no patience for trying more than once. My bad.

Back when I learned the cranial nerve, I was taught "Had" some hops instead of "Viewed." Was one of the nerves renamed or something when I wasn't looking?

Richard Mabry said...

Deb, Don't know where an "h" would come from. The last four cranial nerves (for those keeping score at home) are glossopharyngeal, vagus, spinal accessory, hypoglossal.
See, folks. You learn stuff if you read this blog.