Potshots

Contents

Number 1: That vs. which

Number 2: Comma between independent clauses

Number 3: I, me, and myself

Number 4: Subjunctive mood

Number 1

If you’re gonna preach it . . .

The main event: That vs. which

[Note: In Rule 3 from Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style (p. 2) we read this: “Enclose parenthetic expressions between commas.” Later (p. 7), we read this: “Rules 3, 4, 5, and 6 cover the most important principles that govern punctuation. They should be so thoroughly mastered that their application becomes second nature.”]

Here’s the basic rule governing that and which from The Elements of Style (p. 59).

That. Which. That is the defining, or restrictive [or essential] pronoun, which the nondefining, or nonrestrictive [or nonessential]. See Rule 3.

 The lawn mower that is broken is in the garage. (Tells which one)

 The lawn mower, which is broken, is in the garage. (Adds a fact about the only mower in question)

In the first example, that introduces an adjectival clause that is essential to the meaning: “The broken lawn mower is in the garage.” In the second example, which introduces an adjectival clause (a parenthetic expression) that is not essential. Think of it like this: “The lawn mower is in the garage. By the way, it’s broken.” The writer has to decide which construction conveys the desired meaning.

Here’s another example (my own):

The sunflowers that grow in the alley are six feet tall.

The sunflowers, which grow in the alley, are six feet tall.

In the first example, only the sunflowers growing in the alley are six feet tall. The clause following that is essential (defining, restrictive). In the second example, all the sunflowers are six feet tall. “The sunflowers are six feet tall. By the way, they grow in the alley.” The clause following which is nonessential (nondefining, nonrestrictive).

I’m including this introduction in order to discuss a consistent error in Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Before I start, I want to say that I’ve read this book several times, always finding it entertaining, enlightening, and inspiring. You should read this book. I attribute the errors I’m about to discuss not to King but to his editor. I think his editor let him down.

[By the way, I realize that my comments will be, and should be, examined under a microscope. So, if I make an error, I expect to hear from you.]

In King’s Second Foreword, he states the following: “I’ll tell you right now that every aspiring writer should read The Elements of Style.” And this is from his Third Foreword: “. . . all have sinned and fallen short of editorial perfection. Put another way, to write is human, to edit is divine.”

After all this, and after mentioning The Elements of Style again in the text, King uses which instead of that throughout the entire book (to me, this is funny and a bit sad). His editor should have asked him what meaning he was trying to convey. Then they could have decided either to use commas with the which clauses or change which to that.

Example 1 (p. 22)

There was a whole world of vicarious adventure which came packaged in black-and-white, fourteen inches across and sponsored by brand names which still sound like poetry to me.

The first which should be that. King is singling out only the world of vicarious adventure that is packaged in black-and-white. The use of the second which is not so obvious. Does he mean that the vicarious adventure was sponsored by brand names? And that, by the way, those brand names sound like poetry to him? If so, he should have inserted a comma after “names.” Or does King mean that only these particular brand names sound like poetry to him? If so, he should have changed which to that. His editor should have asked him what he meant.

Example 2 (p. 61)

. . . this would have been right around the time the symptoms of the cancer which killed her started to show themselves.

King might mean, “The symptoms of the cancer started to show themselves. By the way, the cancer killed her.” If so, he should have written, “. . . the symptoms of the cancer, which killed her, started to show themselves.” Or does he mean that this particular cancer is the one that killed her? If so, he should have written, “. . . the symptoms of the cancer that killed her started to show themselves.” Again, his editor should have asked him what he meant.

Stephen King’s book is full of whiches that should be thats. And again, I have to emphasize that I love this book. It is excellent. You should read it. ’Nuff said.

Number 2

If you’re gonna preach it . . .

Comma between independent clauses

[Note: In Rule 4 from Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style (p. 5) we read this: “Place a comma before a conjunction introducing an independent clause.” Later (p. 7), we read this: “Rules 3, 4, 5, and 6 cover the most important principles that govern punctuation. They should be so thoroughly mastered that their application becomes second nature.”]

Here are a couple examples from The Elements of Style (p. 5).

The early records of the city have disappeared, and the story of its first years can no longer be reconstructed.

The situation is perilous, but there is still one chance of escape.

I’m including this introduction in order to discuss an error in Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Before I start, I want to say that I’ve read this book several times, always finding it entertaining, enlightening, and inspiring. You should read this book. I attribute the error I’m about to discuss not to King but to his editor. I think his editor let him down.

[By the way, I realize that my comments will be, and should be, examined under a microscope. So, if I make an error, I expect to hear from you.]

In King’s Second Foreword, he states the following: “I’ll tell you right now that every aspiring writer should read The Elements of Style.” And this is from his Third Foreword: “. . . all have sinned and fallen short of editorial perfection. Put another way, to write is human, to edit is divine.”

The following is an example from On Writing (p. 148) that breaks Rule 4. To follow the rule, King should have inserted a comma after “rust.”

The tale’s narrative cutting edge starts to rust and I begin to lose my hold on the story’s plot and pace.

You could probably call this nit-picking. As a matter of fact, I’m tempted to call it nit-picking. But I’m pointing it out for a couple reasons. One, a book that extols The Elements of Style should at least follow Rules 3, 4, 5, and 6. Two, it’s nearly impossible to find all the errors in a manuscript, no matter how many qualified people read it.

And again, I have to emphasize that I love Stephen King’s book. It is excellent. You should read it.

Number 3

If you’re gonna preach it . . .

Note to myself . . . Next time use “I” or “me.”

I (Personal pronoun. Use as the subject of a sentence.)

me (Personal pronoun. Use as an object in a sentence.)

myself (Reflexive pronoun. Use as an object in a sentence when the subject and object are the same person.)

First, here’s an example where the subject and object of a sentence are the same person. “I hurt myself.” We usually don’t make errors with this construction.

I think we make errors with the pronouns I, me, and myself in a genuine attempt to use good grammar and to be polite. For a pretty comprehensive discussion of I and me, see my comic strip Lex on the Grammar Comic Strip page of my website.

Lots of times we end up using myself when we know the correct word is either I or me, but we just don’t know which one to use. Myself seems safe. So, remember, when you get stuck, eliminate the other people in your sentence. Then you’ll know whether to use I or me.

Example 1

If you have any questions about the policy, don’t hesitate to call my partner or myself.

Eliminate “my partner” in the preceding sentence, and it’s obvious that the pronoun me is correct. “If you have any questions about the policy, don’t hesitate to call me.

Example 2

My partner and myself will be happy to answer any questions about the policy.

Again, eliminate “my partner,” and the correct pronoun is obvious. “I will be happy to answer any questions about the policy.”

Page 155 of Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft contains an embarrassing error that his editor missed. Again, I think his editor let him down. 

Grisham, Clancy, Crichton, and myself—among others—are paid these large sums of money because we are selling uncommonly large numbers of books to uncommonly large audiences.

The fix is obvious if we eliminate Grisham, Clancy, and Crichton. “I am paid these large sums of money because I am selling uncommonly large numbers of books . . .”

Don’t play it safe and use myself when you can’t decide which pronoun to use. It’s easy to figure it out. And don’t think it’s rude to use the word me. Sometimes it’s your only choice, for crying out loud.

Number 4

If I were you, I’d use was. 

The subjunctive mood is appropriate for more than one condition. But here I’m going to discuss conditions that are contrary to fact. 

Examples of subjunctive mood

“If I were a rich man . . .” from Fiddler on the Roof (I’m not a rich man, but if I were . . .)

“If I were the king of the world . . .” from Joy to the World by Three Dog Night (I’m not the king of the world, but if I were . . .)

“If I were you, I’d . . .” (I’m not you, but if I were . . .) 

Use the subjunctive mood (were instead of was) when you state a condition that is contrary to fact. Don’t use it when you state a noncommittal condition or simple lack of knowledge. 

Examples 

Noncommittal—indicative mood

If I was arrogant when I talked about myself, I’m sorry. (Maybe I was arrogant when I talked about myself, maybe not.) 

Contrary to fact—subjunctive mood

If I were arrogant, I would have talked about myself. (I’m not arrogant, so I didn’t talk about myself.)

Here are some examples from The Elements of Grammar (Margaret Shertzer. Macmillan Publishing Company, 1986, p. 32). 

Present condition, noncommittal

If this pebble is a diamond, it is valuable. 

Past condition, noncommittal

If that pebble was a diamond, it was valuable. 

Contrary to fact (my own)

If that pebble were a diamond, it would be valuable. (It’s not a diamond, so it’s not valuable.) 

I’m reading The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, which my daughter recommended. The author, Michael Chabon, won a Pulitzer Prize for his engrossing and entertaining novel. Here are some examples where Chabon uses the subjunctive mood correctly and incorrectly. The subjunctive mood trips all of us up eventually.

Correct use of subjunctive (p. 343) 

He wore a tuxedo jacket, a white silk cravat stiff and glossy as meringue, and a mien that was grave but volatile, stretched thin over an underlying smirk, as if some kind of prank were under way. [In reality, some kind of prank was not under way.]

Incorrect use of subjunctive (p. 306) 

He wondered if he were more afraid of Tracy Bacon or of showing up for dinner at Ethel’s late, reeking of gin, and with the world’s largest piece of trayf in tow. [Maybe he was afraid of Tracy and maybe he was afraid of Ethel. The fix: “He wondered if he was more afraid . . .”]