Relative difficulty
West Coast Editor,
December 2003

As I perused a Saturday Globe and Mail last month, the following passage offended my grammatical sensibilities, so I stopped for a closer look.

In “Physical combat for white collar workers” (Nov. 15, page D5) the author rationalizes his decision not to deck a queue jumper at a take-out pizza joint, and proceeds to muse about the larger question of what constitutes correct masculine behaviour nowadays.

After expressing concern about what a black eye might say about him, he wrote: “A bruise is evidence of unpredictability, instability; certainly it proves a dearth of imagination in problem solving tactics. Which brings us to a paradox of modern masculinity.”

This brings us to a paradox of modern writing—writers who think a relative clause constitutes a sentence. The source of this error is the same one responsible for numerous laxities in modern English—the belief that we write the way we speak.\

Capitalizing a relative pronoun gives the illusion of emphasis; that is, the writer seems to want a small pause for effect after the previous sentence, and then start a new one. Nonsense.

A relative pronoun by definition requires an antecedent, which means it may not begin a sentence. The above error could be fixed by a comma (“…tactics, which brings us to a paradox…”), demonstrative pronoun (“…tactics. This brings us to a paradox…”), or by inserting “and this” (“…tactics, and this brings us to a paradox…”). Moreover, this error creates initial ambiguity with the interrogatives “which?” and “who?”

Unfortunately, certain writers don’t believe the rules of grammar apply to them. About five years ago I called the Globe anguage maven Warren Clements to complain about this problem in Margaret Wente’s writing. He responded tersely that she was a senior columnist and could write however she wanted.

Ah, descriptivism!