Thursday, December 2, 2010

Caribbean Examination Council, regional ministries of education, and the ‘that-which’ rule

This will be an exercise in the usefulness of the internet.

I am curious about the position of regional ministries of education, as (presumably) expressed in the Caribbean Examinations Council syllabi, on the ‘which-that’ rule.

A few more folks now visit this site than did before (thanks, bredren and sistren, guys and dolls) but I am also shouting out those whose sites carry a lot more traffic with the request that they circulate our dilemma because it is an important question and one for which we need an urgent answer. I’ll say why in a minute, but first a little story.

Not long ago, I had a phone call from an academic from the region, distressed because the American publisher to whom this person had submitted a MS was insisting that a host of ‘which’s’ in the MS be converted to ‘that’s’. Of course I had, sadly, to say the publisher was right, and to invoke the ‘which that rule’.


You are working in MSWord, grammar function on. You type this sentence. The pot which had a hole in the bottom had to be thrown out… Behold! The wriggly green line appears under “pot which had a hole in the bottom” and you are advised that this is in need of correction, and you are told what your options are: insert comma after ‘pot’ so clause becomes a descriptive clause, or use ‘that’. This will always happen with sentences in which the word ‘which’ introduces a definitive clause.

If you check the style books, or the newspaper guides, they will say either that the word ‘that’ must introduce such a clause, or, more gently, as does the London Times style guide below, that ‘that’ is usually better that ‘which’ for introducing definitive clauses. (A definitive clause says what the thing being identified is. A descriptive clause merely ascribes a characteristic to it.)

According to the Times, then:

that ... That is almost always better than which in a defining clause, eg, “the train that I take stops at Slough”. As a general rule, use which for descriptive clauses and place it between commas, eg, “the night train, which used to carry newspapers, stops at Crewe”.

And indeed, if you say the sentence, it will indeed roll more pleasingly off the tongue, be more sensible-sounding with ‘that’.

But, by sweet serendipity, this is not the way we learned it in the Caribbean as children. And old habits die hard, especially if you are not in the daily grip (came out as ‘drip’ – Kamau would like that!) of authoritarian software – hence the dilemma of my academic friend.

I’m assessing a book which… oops, no, a book that has been in use in the region and that is replete with infractions of this rule. So I need to know, and would be glad of any help in discovering what the judgment of regional expertise in this matter is.

Thank you, then, on behalf of children and new learners of English in the Caribbean!

On the matter of the Wikileaks, and further to yesterday’s post: Here’s Haroon Siddiqui in today’s Toronto Star on the Wikileaks. His position is not unlike that of the Canadian ex-diplomat whom I quoted yesterday (well, he’s a Canadian, but not a Canadian ex-diplomat)…

Till soon.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010


It's amazing the variety of responses to the Wikileaks. There's one from a former Canadian diplomat who thinks they are mighty dangerous. If diplomatic information gatherers are to be of use, he feels, then they must be able to pass on in a forthright fashion, any information, however ugly and compromising, that they may discover. They must be free to communicate, as he once did, things that "would make your hair stand on end." (I think that's how it went.)

And this communication has to be privileged and private, and so secret.

Further, he argues that to compromise this information flow by subverting its secrecy is only one aspect of the danger. Worse is the fact that the leaks lead not to a freer but a more repressive world, by means of the retribution that will follow and be visited on local populations. Local people, activists or not, who supply info-gatherers from
foreign embassies and covert agencies with information about human rights abuses will be at risk because oppressive regimes will round them up and there will be repercussions – presumably, threats, torture, maiming, imprisonment and maybe even death.

An ex-diplomat I know (not Canadian) pooh-poohs that. "Oppressive regimes always know who the informers are," he says. Presumably they have also already jailed or killed or otherwise dealt with the ones they consider truly dangerous. (One thinks of Aung San Suu Kyi, who makes a good case for that argument.)

He also repeats some sound coaching he received many years ago, from a senior civil servant, about writing memos and advices for senior politicos and government decision-makers.

"Draft everything as though you are going to see it next day on the front page of the newspaper!"

Is it possible to do this? Be cogent, comprehensive, bald and – well, I guess, diplomatic?

On the one hand, code names, and codes and hieroglyphs are the order of the day. Texting and the net have manufactured their own lingo. HTML, anyone? On the other hand, there is all of literature and fable and song to draw analogies from, a host of languages to forge into pastiche
and bricolage, a panoply of imaginative stuff to creatively deploy to send messages across.

A good example (sourced from the other Wiki, Wikipedia) is the apocryphal story of General Sir Charles James Napier's terse (one-word) communication of his fall from grace

In 1842, Napier was appointed Major General to the command of the Indian army in the Bombay Presidency. Here Lord Ellenborourgh's policy led him to Sindh Province in order to subdue the insurrection of Muslim rulers. Napier's campaign against these chieftains led to victories in the Battle of Meanee and the Battle of Hyderabad, and then to the subjugation of Sindh Province and its annexation by its eastern neighbors. Having conquered Sindh, Napier was supposed to have dispatched to his superiors the short, notable message, Peccavi, the Latin for "I have sinned" – a pun of course, on "I have Sindh."

Any good English or civics teacher would already have taken the problem for discussion and action to her class! What would you, if you were a diplomat, communicating sensitive, even explosive information, do?

All that said, is it safe, let alone wise for everyone to know everything about everything?

Here's counsel for all seasons and servants and souls from Bernard of Clairvaux:

Peace within the cell: fierce warfare without.

Hear all; believe a few: honour all.
Don't believe everything you hear;
Don't judge everything you see;
Don't do everything you can;
Don't give everything you have;
Don't say everything you know…