Archive | June, 2011

Which Is That?

29 Jun

Whether they realize it or not, most people have some sort of list of traits that they consider essential in a romantic partner.  “These things I will not live without in a relationship!” they cry, pointing to items 7 (“Likes shellfish, but doesn’t love it more than regular food, like bird meat”) and 44 (“Keeps the toilet seat weighted down with tubes of toothpaste squeezed from the middle”).

Then time goes on. The emails from dating sites like e-Melodies and MyFriendSignedMeUpForThisAccountIsn’tItFunnyIThinkI’llJustKeepItJustBecauseTheyDidThatFunnyJokeRememberItWas MyCrazyFriendWhoDidThisNotMeItWasn’ slow down.  Desperation sets in.  And suddenly, what is “essential” in a relationship changes.  Items are mentally crossed off the “list” until it’s at the bare minimum:

1. Alive

2. Doesn’t spell “congratulations” with a d.

(A girl’s gotta have some standards.)

This idea of what is essential and what is not is key to understanding today’s topic: when do you use that in a sentence and when do you use which?

Here’s the short answer: use that to introduce an essential clause and use which to introduce a non-essential clause.

Here’s a longer explanation: an essential clause is a part of a sentence that needs to be there in order for a sentence to make sense or fulfill its purpose.

Example: Books that include their own title in the climax annoy me.

In this sentence, “that include their own title in the climax” is an essential clause because the sentence doesn’t fulfill its purpose without it.  If I took that part it out, the sentence would just say, “Books annoy me.”  This is obvious not the point the sentence is trying to make.  Therefore, the clause is essential.

Another Example: A book series that does this is Twilight, by Stephenie Meyer. Don’t ask me how I know.

“That does this” is an essential clause because it is specifying what series I’m talking about; the entire meaning is lost if it is taken from the sentence.

A non-essential clause is just the opposite: it is a clause that can be lifted out of the sentence without having any effect on the grammar or meaning.

Example: This duck, which I have not named yet, looks like he might respond to the name “Puck.” Probably because it rhymes with “duck.”

“Which I have not named yet” is a non-essential clause.  Take it out of the sentence, and the sentence still makes complete sense.  Therefore: non-essential.  It doesn’t need to be there for the sentence to function–it’s just an extra bit of information.

That’s all that you need to ask yourself when deciding if you should start a clause with that or which.  Another tip/clue: which clauses are set apart with commas (as you can see in the example).  Think of these commas as hooks with which you can lift the clause out of the sentence.

And who knows?  Maybe while fishing in these sentences you’ll hook yourself a nice, handsome clause you can take home at Christmas and introduce to your parents.  Just as long as that clause doesn’t include the word “congradulations.”  That’s just not how that word is spelled.


My Big, Fat, Geek Posting

17 Jun

If you don’t even know what an adjective is, I bet that it’s going to bum you out to learn that there is an actual order than adjectives should go in.

This is similar to my experience whenever I eat somewhere fancy (like a McDonald’s with a PlayPlace).  How am I supposed to know what order I’m meant to pick up utensils in when I did not know that these utensils existed to begin with?  Soup spoons I can forgive.  But there is a spoon for everything.  Spoons for caviar, spoons for dessert, spoons for mustard, spoons for olives.  And these are actual different spoons–these spoon-namers aren’t just licking their spoons clean like I do and saying, “There.  Now this is a soup spoon.”  Did you know that caviar spoons are made of mother of pearl, gold, animal horn, or wood TO PRESERVE THE FLAVOR?  “Yes, yes, excuse me, good sir, but if you could, this spoon is completely masking the taste of these fully ripe fish ovaries.  Please bring me a mother of pearl spoon post-haste before the flavor is completely lost, and I end up feeling like I’m eating rotten Dippin’ Dots.”

So I feel pretty indignant when someone suggests that there’s an ORDER these utensils are meant to be used in, or that they truly belong at specific places on the table.  I have a feeling that your feelings towards me for telling you that adjectives are meant to be written in a certain order may be similar.

An adjective is a descriptive word–big,fat, geek, Greek.  In English, we often use more than one adjective before a noun: He’s a silly little boy or That’s a red English sleeping bag, for example.

In general, the types of adjectives you will use will fall in one of the following categories.  These categories–with examples–are listed in the order that those adjectives should follow in a sentence.

1. Determiner (a, the, his, her, six, that, many)

2. Observation/Opinion (ugly, obnoxious, stunning)

3. Size (tiny, huge, scrawny)

4. Shape (pear-shaped, rhombus-like, square)

5. Age (ancient, six-month old, young)

6. Color (burnt sienna, silver)

7. Origin (American, Scandinavian)

8. Material (fur, velvet, tin)

9. Qualifier (for example, baseball players, log cabin, etc.)

10. Noun

And there you have it.  A sentence that would include all of the descriptors above in the right order might read:

The beautiful, gigantic, watermelon-shaped, old, green, African, wooden watermelon sculpture was a fake, and I don’t know why anyone would do that to a person. 

This sentence is awkward, and not just because it implies that I tried to eat a fake watermelon; it’s awkward because we rarely use each type of adjective in one sentence.  In fact, to do so is a very bad idea.  You’ll remember, I hope, this post, where I urge you quite strongly against the overuse of adjectives.

You will run into situations, though, where you may be using a few scattered adjectives–an age, origin, and qualifier, perhaps–and I hope that when you do, you remember this post, and smile.  Although you may just be smiling at me, because you have noticed from across the table that I am trying to hang a soup spoon off of my nose, and you’re embarrassed, because all fancy people know that you shouldn’t try to hang your soup spoon off of your nose until after dessert.

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