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“That” versus “Which”

One of the most common errors I come across is when writers use “which” instead of “that.” The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th Edition, includes these words in its Glossary of Problematic Words and Phrases. Both words are relative pronouns in that they introduce a dependent (relative) clause and relate it to an independent clause (modifying a word, phrase or idea). The most commonly used relative pronouns are who/whom, whoever/whomever, whose, that, and which. (What, when, and where can function as relative pronouns in certain situations.)

There are two types of relative clauses: restrictive and non-restrictive. Relative pronouns that introduce restrictive clauses are not separated from the independent clause by a comma. The information they offer is essential to the meaning of the sentence. Example: The short story that you submitted was the winning entry. If you remove the relative clause (that you submitted) the sentence would not reflect its intended meaning. The relative clause, in this case, is restrictive; it provides necessary information. In the example, “that” is used restrictively to narrow a category or identify an item.

A relative clause is non-restrictive if it can be eliminated without changing the meaning of the sentence. Example: Your short story, which I read this morning, was the winning entry. Non-restrictive relative clauses are separated from the rest of the sentence by commas (or enclosed in parentheses or preceded by a dash). The use of “which” in the example provides additional information for an item already identified (your short story was identified as the winning entry). “Which” is used restrictively only when it follows a preposition.

“That” and “which” are not interchangeable, so determine whether the clause introduced by one of those words is restrictive or non-restrictive, and whether the information in the clause is essential to the meaning of the sentence or provides additional (but non-essential) information.

Beverly Ehrman edits fiction and nonfiction, magazine and newspaper articles, book proposals, educational and promotional materials, business documents, and website copy.

What Is the Point?

I am an editor whose clients are excessively fond of exclamation points and question marks. And once I’ve persuaded these enthusiastic authors to use them sparingly, they happily torture me by using multiples of each in their emails to me. One even challenged me to remove the exclamation points from his client recommendation. I did.

The Chicago Manual of Style says exclamation points “should be used sparingly to be effective.” The use of multiple exclamation points at the end of a sentence is distracting and suggests hysteria; exclamation points in close proximity to each other lessen their impact. F. Scott Fitzgerald said that an “exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.”

Now seriously, what is the point of three question marks? Would this sentence be any more of a question if I add more question marks? What about dialogue in which almost every statement ends in a question mark because that’s really how people speak? (A rhetorical question does not require a question mark but I wanted to make my point.) And while I am at it, a period never accompanies an exclamation point or a question mark.

Check out the symbol chart in Microsoft Word’s Wingdings 2 font; you will find an interrobang—an exclamation point and question mark combined in one symbol. It was first proposed in 1962 byMartin K. Speckter, who thought that it would be an effective way of posing rhetorical questions and expressing disbelief in advertising copy.

The editor of the Chicago Manual of Style Online’s Q&A, Carol Saller, when asked about the interrobang, replied “And we don’t mention smiley faces either!”

Beverly Ehrman edits fiction and nonfiction, magazine and newspaper articles, book proposals, educational and promotional materials, business documents, and website copy.

Inside or Outside

I recently received an email message from a writer/teacher saying that she is seeing periods placed outside quotation marks “by all” of her (college-level) students, and has also received emails from colleagues that commit the same error. She questioned me because “so many people are using it this way.”

Periods and commas should be placed within quotation marks. Question marks and exclamation points are placed inside or outside quotation marks depending on whether they are part of the quotation. Colons and semicolons are placed outside quotation marks. The Chicago Manual of Style sees no reason to place a period or comma outside quotation marks except when it is “essential to make clear that the period is not included in the quoted material.” The example given is “Type in the code “W1.GH.748”.

These rules are used when writing for an American audience. British writers follow a rule of logic: periods and commas are placed either inside or outside quotation marks depending on whether they belong to the quoted material or to the sentence that includes the quoted material.

The Chicago Manual of Style calls the placement of periods and commas within quotations “a traditional style, in use well before the first edition of this manual (1906).” I found this comment in the Chicago Style Q&A: “Not that punctuation is necessarily logical, you know; sometimes it is simply based on convention.” The Associated Press Stylebook and the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association agree with convention.

“The Yahoo! Style Guide” (writing and editing for the digital world) also places periods and commas within quotation marks, except for “a character or a string of characters that the user must type exactly,” but also suggests that the sentence be reworded so the placement of punctuation isn’t near the quotation marks or, alternatively, that boldface type be used for the string.

Beverly Ehrman edits fiction and nonfiction, magazine and newspaper articles, book proposals, educational and promotional materials, business documents, and website copy.

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