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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Kilpatrick is on a Which Hunt

It seems that James Kilpatrick, whom I must confess a near life-time disdain for, has declared that the award for November's (who knew months had this?) award for the ugliest word in English goes to which. He writes:
It grates; it pouts; it scratches. It rubs the wrong way. It rarely accomplishes anything not already well-served by that.
Actually, there are words that are way more offensive by Kilpatrick's standards. One that instantly comes to mind is church. Why? The alleged phonetic problem with which is not the initial, quite inoffensive voiceless fricative, nor the vowel, which is also inoffensive. It must be the palatal voiceless fricative "ch." Church has two of them as well as one of the ugliest vowel sounds of English, a rhoticized (r-colored) vowel I shall not attempt to describe further having years ago been shown the folly of that by an Ohio State phonetician. Why wouldn't Kilpatrick identify church as being phonetically offensive? That would be offensive to church-goers and Kilpatrick wouldn't have the guts for that.

So, Kilpatrick's phontetic objections to which are bullcrap. I think he was probably frightened by a witch when young and is fearful of any word pronounced in a similar way to witch. And, we are told it rarely accomplishes anything not accomplished by that. This too is nonsense. Consider the following hypothetical conversation:
Customer: I want one of those scarves.
Clerk: Which one would you like?
Clearly, this occurrence of which cannot be replaced by that. Nor can the which of
Clerk (alternate reply): You may have whichever one you want for $20.00.
So we have collected two types of occurrences of which that cannot be replaced by that. Much uglier than whichever would be thatever.

There are other uses of which that are not replaceable by that. Consider:
He was wearing a blue or green cap. I don't know which it was.
This counterexample, like the others, involves a choice from among a set of alternatives -- one scarf from a bunch (isn't bunch as ugly as which?) of scarves or a choice between a set of two caps.

What this nitwit should have said is that he objects to the use of
which as a relative pronoun. Consider
The dog which bit me.
The dog that bit me.
or
I bought the dog which Mary wanted.
I bought the dog that Mary wanted.
In the continuation of my first paragraph following the example I wrote
The problem with which is not the initial quite inoffensive, voiceless fricative nor the vowel, which is also inoffensive.
Here we have a nonrestrictive relative pronoun use of which. This is clearly not replaceable by that.
The problem with which is not the initial quite inoffensive voiceless fricative, nor the vowel, that is also inoffensive.
The reality is that Kilpatrick knows little about English grammar and what he knows he doesn't understand except at a superficial grammar school level. As a linguist, I am offended that his grammatical "knowledge" is respected.

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6 Comments:

Blogger Her Majesty said...

"Bunch" is not as ugly, for the "n" before the fricative "ch."
Thanks for the link, I needed that (don't mind admitting so) and will peruse the site a bit later.

As for "which" being the choice for November, I wonder the rational for choosing the words at all. Could it be alphabetical, begun in January 2006? Might justifiy the shirking of "church."

5:35 PM

 
Blogger Wordslinger said...

Great post. I'm increasingly frustrated by people who fail to grasp the concept of which as a relative pronoun. Someone once taught me that you should always have a comma before "which" (this is in a few style guides too). If it looks or sounds wrong to have a comma, you probably mean "that"
Anyway, superb blog - I've put a link from mine at languageunpacked.blogspot.com. Will be back soon!

8:23 AM

 
Blogger The Language Guy said...

Thank you. I need to step up my posting. With Obama winning, my anger at our government is diminishing and I, like comedians, do better when there is a nitwit in office.

7:36 AM

 
Blogger baralbion said...

What are your grounds for ascribing aesthetic qualities (‘inoffensive’, ‘ugliest’) to the sounds of speech? At best, can’t such judgments only be subjective?

11:46 AM

 
Blogger The Language Guy said...

Any vowel that would occur in the word, "Duh!, a word that signifies "yes, you dolt" cannot be other than an ugly vowel. :-)

3:13 PM

 
Blogger baralbion said...

I'll take that as a yes.

3:48 PM

 

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