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Issue 78, 28 January 2004

ISSN 1442-8652

Editor: Jean Hollis Weber

In this issue...

"Which" as the object of a preposition?
The rule about when to use "which" or "that"
Convincing management to allow you to edit substantively
Indexing single-source documents
Avoiding singular "they"
For Australians: AODC in Sydney
Websites for contacting editors in New Zealand
Be wary of messages purporting to come from my domain
My books: Taming Microsoft Word and others
Subscription information and privacy statement

"Which" as the object of a preposition?

A reader wrote,
"I was especially pleased to see that you regard the rules against splitting infinitives and ending a sentence with a preposition as 'fake rules.' ...

"I was wondering if I could get your take on another 'rule' that one of my colleagues insists upon. She says that the only time you can use the word 'which' (other than in an interrogatory sentence -- 'Which fork should I use?') is in a nonessential clause.

"I've seen abundant examples of 'which' being used as the object of a preposition -- 'by which,' 'for which,' 'during which,' 'under which,' etc. These examples have appeared in high-quality publications. I happened upon a usage book ... that said it's ok to use 'which' as the object of a preposition, but I can't convince my colleague. I'd be very interested in your opinion."

My reply:
I too have seen "which" commonly used as the object of a preposition, and in fact I use it myself occasionally. However, my initial reaction is to avoid such usage, not because of grammatical incorrectness, but because the phrase is likely to be either "noise" or ambiguous or simply awkward.

My reaction may be a false one, brought about by editing a book in which the author uses the word "this" as a pronoun rather than an adjective, and in almost every instance it's unclear what "this" refers to. I see I've just written a sentence using "in which"!

Other phrases I try to avoid include "it is," "there are" (and variations), but you'll notice I used "it's unclear" in the previous paragraph. All of these terms and phrases are on my list of "rewrite if you have time, but don't obsess over them" topics.

Readers are invited to comment on this topic!

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The rule about when to use "which" or "that"

Most of us have been bullied at one time or another about using "which" and "that" correctly in dependent clauses.

The Editorium (a publication I highly recommend, especially for users of Microsoft Word), has some information in the August 27, 2003 edition on the use of "which" or "that" (in an article titled "Style by Microsoft").

Peg Hausman wrote,
"My pet peeve is... the alleged rule against using "which" to introduce a restrictive (essential) clause in a sentence... it was originally simply a mild preference expressed by H. W. Fowler in his famous Modern English Usage (1926). The preference got picked up by AP and was soon presented as grammatical gospel, reproducing itself via journalism teachers all over the United States, in spite of the fact that it fails to reflect most normal educated usage."

Peg appends an email with more information (reproduced in The Editorium) and also refers readers to a discussion on the Electric Editors list.

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Convincing management to allow you to edit substantively

A reader wrote:
"I read [your] article ['Do Technical Editors Focus on the Wrong Things?' in the March 2003 issue of Corrigo] with interest, especially being able to overcome the belief that substantive editing takes too long and costs too much. However, the article never addressed how to overcome this belief beyond saying we should say we add considerable value. When someone is watching their budget, we need more ammunition than just saying 'trust me'. You missed the boat here."

The article mentioned is here:

My response:
You're looking for the follow-up paper, which hasn't been published yet.

"How to overcome this belief" is usually a matter of the personalities involved and the politics of the situation, so it's difficult to do more than make a few suggestions. I did a bit of that in the article you read (use authoritative sources to back up what you say), but I agree it wasn't a detailed discussion.

One thing that any of us can do, within the time available on any project, is find something to comment on that will have meaning and value for writers (from their point of view), so they think we are an asset and have something to contribute that they appreciate. Then they may speak up on our behalf. ("Jean discovered a really important issue in my document, that everyone else missed. She's a real asset to the project.") Don't ask permission to edit substantively; just do it.

When I put this question to the STC's Technical Editing SIG mailing list, I received this suggestion from one of the members:

"Take the worst draft you can find and the same document after a substantive edit to management and *show the differences* in readability, structure, and conformity to the company style guide, if you have one.

"I guess if you're taking a really, really bad draft, make it one written by a writer who is no longer with your company, or you may get questions about why the person is still working there if his or her writing is that bad. Better might be to take a decent, readable draft by a good writer and then show how it can be improved by a substantive edit."

I'd suggest that improving a "decent, readable draft" is a better ploy. Really bad writing is too easy a target; almost anything would be an improvement. You don't get a chance to show off your talent by fixing really bad writing.

I'd like to hear from anyone else who may have other practical, tactical suggestions.

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Indexing single-source documents

The WritersUA website has an interesting article by Kurt Ament on indexing single-source documents, which begins: "Single sourcing is a documentation method that enables you to reuse the information that you develop. You build modular information, then assemble that information into different formats, such as printed manuals, online Help, even web sites. Reusing information saves you time and money because it eliminates duplicate work.

"Single sourcing changes the way you develop information... and the way you index that information. [It] forces you to integrate indexing into your information development process."

The full article is here:

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Avoiding singular "they"

A reader wrote:
"It's been my preference to use the [singular] "their," but as I poke around on the web, I realize that many people have a real negative visceral response to using "their" [as] a singular pronoun." The reader noted that sometimes the usual solutions (make the subject plural; use the second person, not the third; and others) didn't work, or made the sentence awkward, or were not allowed by management.

I was asked to "reconstruct these sentences in a way that makes them grammatically correct, but still something you would say in regular conversation." My answers are interspersed.

First let me say that I don't see any reason not to use the singular "they" in _conversation_ or informal writing, except possibly when dealing with pedantic time-wasting twits from whom you want a favor, a job, or large amounts of money.

I also have no problem with using the singular "they" in formal writing, but I try to avoid it because many people object so strongly to that usage. After all, a major principle of good writing is to consider the audience.

Having said all that, I'll get into the spirit of the exercise.

Original sentence 1:
"If anyone calls, tell them I can't come to the phone."

My version:
"If anyone calls, say I can't come to the phone."

(In speech, I'd be more likely to use my version than the original sentence.)

Original sentence 2:
"Somebody left a message on the machine, but they didn't say what they wanted."

(I would probably have been able to tell from the voice whether the caller was male or female; if so, I would use the appropriate pronoun instead of "they" in the original sentence.)

My version, if you couldn't tell about the caller:
"Somebody left a message on the machine, but didn't give a reason for the call."

Original sentence 3:
"No one should have to sell their home to pay for medical care."

My version:
"No one should have to sell a home to pay for medical care."

(In this case, I'd be more likely to say the original sentence, because the emphasis on "their" home has emotional value, but saying "a" home doesn't change the meaning. Who else's home would someone be selling? If it's an investment place, not the one the seller lives in, then the intent of the sentence is lost.)

Readers' comments are, as always, welcome! But don't waste your time ranting against (or for) the singular "they" -- I'm not interested (I know all the arguments) and I certainly won't publish your rants.

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For Australians: AODC in Sydney

The seventh annual Australasian Online Documentation and Content Conference (AODC 2004) will be held in Manly, a suburb of Sydney, Australia, on 28-30 April, with optional workshops on the 27th. Details here:

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Websites for contacting editors in New Zealand

I've previously mentioned the Technical Communicators' Association of New Zealand,

Another useful website is the Local Publishers Forum,

They invite participation from overseas as well as NZ editors.

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Be wary of messages purporting to come from my domain

As you know, another virus or worm is making the rounds of the Internet, picking up domain names from people's address books and sending out messages that appear to come from those domains. is one of many domain names to be used in this way. My computer is not infected (and never has been), and I don't send s_p_a_m, but you could easily get the idea that I'm the culprit. I've probably ended up (wrongly) on several blacklists because of this problem, about which I can do absolutely nothing.

Unless we are regular correspondents, the only legitimate messages you'll get from me will have this newsletter's name in the subject line, and they will never be in HTML.

I also recommend getting a copy of Mailwasher (assuming you're allowed to install software on the computer you use). I have been using it for over a year. It comes in a free version and a paid ("pro") version. I highly recommend this product, which is easy to use and quite effective. It works for AOL, IMAP, POP3, Hotmail and MSN users.

MailWasher Pro

MailWasher Free

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My books: Taming Microsoft Word and others

Taming Writer 1.1,
Taming Microsoft Word (3 editions, for Word 2002, 2000, and 97),
Editing Online Help,
Electronic Editing,

© Copyright 2003, Jean Hollis Weber. All rights reserved.

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