MET grammar pathway minisession

Relatives: the clause type —  and why people still argue about which

Mary Ellen Kerans

Style advisors and guidebooks sometimes tell us to do which hunts when editing our prose, implying that clauses introduced by which are somehow poor style, out of style, or perhaps even wrong. When revising translations from Romance languages, certainly we’ve seen more wrongly constructed clauses with which than we usually find in prose written directly in English by fluent educated speakers of the language. We suspect this pitfall for translators may be widespread – but the handling of which clauses is hardly the only thing that can go wrong in translating complex sentences with relative clauses.

To spot problems easily – and fix them confidently – it helps to be able to parse sentences with relative clauses quickly so you know why you might need to rearrange words to gain readability and how you need to use punctuation. We’ll go over 1) a few easy-to-remember concepts about the function of a few types of clauses, and 2) the few rules that govern the use of which in academic texts and other genres that require following ‘educated usage’. Once we know those rules, we can decide when we might even feel free to break them. In passing, we’ll go over the way using which rather than that in some clauses somehow became posh at one point and when the pendulum swung so far in the opposite direction that which became anathema for some on both sides of the Atlantic.

About the facilitator: Mary Ellen Kerans works freelance mainly as a medical translator and authors’ editor in Barcelona. She also works with historical texts (or texts in history) and occasionally does classroom teaching. Her background in education (MA in TESOL, Teachers College, Columbia University) includes writing instruction and materials development, especially in English for specific purposes (health sciences). Her interest in a descriptive approach to grammar began happily in the third grade when a public school teacher gave a reasoned, comprehensible explanation – based on observations and analysis she elicited – for why some writing contained sentences starting with And even though teachers told us never to do that.