Sunday, August 19, 2012

When 'which' vs. 'that' makes a difference

Found this sentence in a story today about the S.C. GOP executive committee endorsing the opponent of long-time Republican state Sen. Jake Knotts:
But Connelly said this weeks’ news that Knotts has accepted at least $5,000 from individuals and companies associated with the Internet sweepstakes industry -- which state law enforcement officials say is illegal -- “put a lot (of the committee members) over the top.”
There's plenty of usage debate about which vs. that. But there are occasions when distinguishing really does enhance clarity.

In this case, the construction can lead one to think the act of accepting the donations is illegal. Using "that" without the separating punctuation (and I find the use of the dash curious, but that's more of a nit) would clarify.
But Connelly said this weeks’ news that Knotts has accepted at least $5,000 from individuals and companies associated with the Internet sweepstakes industry that state law enforcement officials say is illegal “put a lot (of the committee members) over the top.”
But that's one mouthful of a sentence. This is a case where, for the sake of the reader, a few more words might help:
But Connelly said this weeks’ news that Knotts has accepted at least $5,000 from individuals and companies associated with the Internet sweepstakes industry “put a lot (of the committee members) over the top.” State law enforcement officials say the industry is illegal.
That also has the advantage of not detouring momentarily, producing a stronger first sentence.

Now, about the misuse of weeks' vs. week's ... was there an editor in the house?

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4 Comments:

At 8/19/12, 7:28 PM, Blogger Ira said...

Actually the sentence as written quite clearly says the internet sweepstakes industry is illegal. Clearly, the antecedent of the phrase within the dashes is "industry." Invoking Miss Thistlebottom is unnecessary here.

 
At 8/19/12, 7:40 PM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...

I disagree that it is clear. "Accepted" is the controlling verb in the sentence and as such the modifying phrase can jump back to that over the prepositional phrase, especially when the wording that follows, "put a lot of heat" also refers back to the acceptance. If you delete the prepositional phrase, the sentence still makes perfect sense with the "which" clause, and in those cases the writer and editor should be alert.

My point is that "that" makes it clearer and the reword not only makes it clearer but more digestible and, as such, stronger.

Journalists need to learn to use fewer clauses.

 
At 8/19/12, 7:55 PM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...

Here's a further illustration as to why I contend it can be better worded (BTW, I'm not arguing that it's mud, only that there is some ambiguity that can be easily cleared up).

Let's take the sentence:
But he said the news that Smith has accepted at least $5,000 from his brother, which state law enforcement officials say is illegal ...

"His brother" performs the same function in the sentence as "individuals and companies associated with the Internet sweepstakes industry." Yet it is clear in this new case that the "which" clause refers to accepting the money.

Using the form of the prepositional phrase also introduces a level of complexity that subtly makes the reader have to clearly follow the intent of the thread. It would even be clearer had the writer used "an industry" instead of "which."

My point is not to argue the rigidity of the which/that dichotomy - I'm not so rigid. But it is to say that in some cases it can make a difference, and the careful writer and editor will be alert to those.

 
At 8/20/12, 9:31 AM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...

Two comments on my Facebook account, where this blog also feeds:

Ted King
As I read the original I assumed it was accepting money that state law enforcement called illegal not the industry itself.

Len Iwanski
I took it to mean that accepting money "from the Internet sweepstakes industry" was illegal -- not the industry or accepting money, but his acceptance of money from this particular industry.

 

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