English Language Prescriptivism: Writing Tips for Serbian/Croatian/Bosnian Speakers

Those familiar with the 1990s language reforms and sensitivity surrounding the prescriptive use of words and linguistic forms designated “Croatian” will be unsurprised to hear that in Anglo-American circles, usage is generally more flexible and attention is directed towards other parts of the language. Nevertheless, purism and prescriptivism continue to exist and this can come up in language editing too.

One of the higher-level “markers of distinction” for academic English writing concerns the correct use of the relative pronouns who, that and which. This is relatively straightforward in Serbian/Croatian/Bosnian where it is almost always some variant of koji and for this reason, it is often mistakenly translated…

Issue one: that or who?

Upoznao sam čovjeka koji radi u supermarketu

This can be translated as:

I met a person that works in a supermarket

I met a person who works in a supermarket

NOT!! I met a person which works in a supermarket

Using “who” is a marker of distinction here, prescribed by certain Anglo-American style guides. The use of “that” is considered by some to be inferior. This is justified using the story that “that” only applies to things, and “who” to people. This conveniently ignores the fact that “whose” sometimes refers to things: e.g. “the car whose keys were in my back pocket.”

Some style guides, e.g. AP (The Associated Press Stylebook – especially used by media workers in the USA) insist on “who”, while many others do not. Insisting on “who” is often referred to in editing circles as being a “stickler” – a sitničar or cjepidlaka.

Issue two: that or which?

A second marker of distinction is between the use of “that” and “which” to refer to restricted and unrestricted clauses. This is a bit more complicated, and there is a semantic difference here of importance on occasion – but there is also a fuzzy grey zone in the middle where editors themselves are sometimes unsure.

Restricted “that” clauses are used when the sentence needs the next bit to continue – i.e. it contains crucial information. This is the case with the previous example – the bit of information about the person working in the supermarket is crucial to the sentence. Sometimes, it is a bit more ambiguous though, as in the following example:

The gold coins that are scratched are fake

The gold coins, which are scratched, are fake

Imagine you have a handful of gold coins. In the first example, the implied meaning is that in your hand you have a collection of coins, some of which are scratched and others of which are shiny – of those coins,  the scratched ones are fake.

In the second example, the middle clause adds additional (non-essential) information. It means that all the gold coins in your hand are scratched, and implies that all the gold coins in your hand are all fake.

The general rule of thumb is that the unrestricted “which” clause contains additional information and uses a comma before which, while the restricted “that” clauses do not take a comma. If you are still unsure about this, check out Grammar Girl’s excellent explainer!

Now if we take improving the clarity of the message communicated as central to editing, then making a judgement about a that/which distinction can be important on occasions. However, sometimes it isn’t that important and is used to mark out distinction too. To make things more complicated, in many varieties of UK English, that and which are more flexibly interchanged.

Being aware of these differences and knowing what they mean can help you get your head round more tricky language choices when writing in English!