The new year brings with it new laws that we may not find out about until we break them. I recently became confused then angered when I saw a commonly known expectation violated over and over.
In two Newsweek articles and one GQ profile, incomplete sentences were being used unreservedly–like the cologne in the men’s bathroom at a nightclub.
Let me preface this by stating that I am conservative about one thing–grammar. A sentence is either complete or incomplete and the liberties with incomplete sentences should be limited. We can use them when we speak.
But when we write, we need complete ideas that begin with a capital letter and end with a period–subject, verb, maybe an object–but always, always a subject and predicate.
Now I appreciate a good sentence fragment, but it’s like men and apple martinis: you can have one every once in a while but they should not become your thing. (I’m too much of gentleman to create a comparable metaphor about women, drinks, and fragments. I support feminism. I married a Chicana feminist. I am raising one. Women, however, should not use sentence fragments freely either. I’ll leave the quantity of apple martinis they enjoy up to them.)
Here are the examples that stuck with me like a bad–very bad–hangover. The first one is from the December 12 Newsweek issue in an editorial explaining why we should care about Europe:
“Which was not to say that the aspirations of the founders of Pan-Europeanism are to be written off as utopian fantasies.”
One week later, I read this in a commentary about Obama’s possible post-White House role:
“Which would leave Barack . . . a stay-at-home dad?”
I thought, “It’s the end of the year. The editors are tired. They know less people will read because more are shopping. Maybe an intern is editing.”
But then I read the January 2012 GQ issue and saw this in a Matt Damon profile:
“Which makes sense, since his relationship with this own celebrity has been fraught.”
I undid my French cuffs. I chugged my Old Fashioned. I rolled up my sleeves in contemplation. Could it be that that the magazine world functions like the appraisers in Steinbeck’s The Pearl? Are they pretending to be competitors but they’re really all controlled by one person? Is there one super editor who declared a liberal (not progressive) use of “which” phrases acceptable?
It couldn’t be.
I turned to the exalted source to which I turn during all times of grammatical crisis: The Chicago Manual of Style’s Q and A site. I submitted these blasphemous examples and, in complete sentences, humbly requested guidance and intervention.
The written voice behind the Web site was not surprised. There was no outrage. She or he or some type of customer-service computer said, “It doesn’t violate any rules of journalistic–or even scholarly–writing, aside from the most formal.”
My breathing became fragmented.
The response continued, “Fragments that confuse or mislead or that simply read awkwardly should be edited in the same way we edit full sentences. Otherwise there’s usually no need.”
It couldn’t be. I re-read the first sentence. I noticed the agressive dashes. I had upset them.
I turned, like the faithful, to another trusted source. But the Purdue Online Writing Lab Web site agreed on the Sentence Fragments page:
“You may have noticed that newspaper and magazine journalists often use a dependent clause as a separate sentence when it follows clearly from the preceding main clause. This is a conventional journalistic practice, often used for emphasis.”
I felt singled out: “You,” they began. “You may have noticed.”
No. No. No wonder so many journalists and bloggers take liberties with information. They’re used to using dependent phrases independently!
Alas, it was true. A which phrase can appear independently.
Now I know. I’ve been lied to my whole writing life. “Which,” I was told, always begins a dependent, incomplete, non-restrictive phrase. “Which,” I wrote down in my notes over and over, is always preceded by a comma. “Which” . . . “which” is not like “that.”
What’s worse? I’ve lied to thousands of students. I worked to instill traditionalist grammatical theories that they will see are defied in the real world. “That’s not true, Salazar,” they’ll gloat when they come back to visit. “You’re out of touch with the real writing world, Ray.” That’s what they’ll say. They’ll . . . they’ll call me by my first name.
When I go back to school on Monday, I may even struggle distinguishing between “which” and its ugly homophone. “Witch” will remind me of ridiculing cackles for wanting to preserve tradition.
Which can never, never happen.
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