EB White on Christmas and Relative Pronouns

One of the things I enjoy about Christmas are the occasional essays written over the years reflecting on how people understand, struggle with, celebrate, or simply tolerate this Yuletide season.  The following s a wonderful essay by EB White (author of the famous “Elements of Style” and the classic children’s novels “Charlotte’s Web” and “Stuart Little”) celebrating the wonder of Christmas as seen through the essays of a grammar fiend – who knew Christmas was a relative pronoun?

EB White on Christmas and Relative Pronouns

We had a Scrooge in our office a few minutes ago, a tall, parched man, beefing about Christmas and threatening to disembowel anyone who mentioned the word. He said his work had suffered and his life had been made unbearable by the demands and conventions of the season. He said he hated wise men, whether from the East or from the West, hated red ribbon, angels, Scotch Tape, greeting cards depicting the Adoration, mincemeat, dripping candles, distant and near relatives, fir balsam, silent night, small boy sopranos, shopping lists with check marks against some of the items, and the whole yuletide stratagem, not to mention the low-lying cloud of unwritten thank-you letters hanging just above the horizon. He was in a savage state. Before he left the office, though, we saw him transfigured, just Scrooge was transfigured. The difference was that whereas Scrooge was softened by visions, our visitor was softened by the sight of a small book standing on our desk – a copy of Fowler’s “Modern English Usage.”

“Greatest collection of essays and opinions ever assembled between covers,” he shouted, “including a truly masterful study of that and which.”

He seized the book and began thumbing through it for favorite passages, slowly stuffing a couple of small gift-wrapped parcels into the pocket of his great coat.

“Listen to this,” he said in a triumphant voice, “‘Avoidance of the obvious is very well, provided that it is not itself obvious, but, if it is, all is spoilt.’  Isn’t that beautiful?”

We agreed that it was a sound and valuable sentiment, perfectly expressed. He then began a sermon on that and which, taking as his text certain paragraphs from Fowler, and warming rapidly to his theme.

“Listen to this: ‘If writers would agree to regard that as the defining relative pronoun, and which as non-defining, there would be much gain both in lucidity and in ease. Some there are who follow this principle now; but it would be idle to pretend that it is the practice of either the most or of the best writers.’”

“It was the practice of St. Matthew,” we put in hastily, “Or at any rate, he practiced it in one of the most moving sentences ever constructed: ‘And lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.’ You’ve got to admit the which in that sentence is where it ought to be, as well as every other word. Did you ever read a more satisfactory sentence than that in your whole life?” “It’s good,” said our friend, “It’s good because there isn’t a ten-dollar word in the whole thing. And Fowler has it pegged, too. Wait a minute. Here. ‘What is to be deprecated is the notion that one can improve one’s style by using stylish words.’ See what I mean about Fowler? But let’s get back to that and which. That’s the business that really fascinates me. Fowler devotes eight pages to it. I got so excited once I had the pages photostatted. Listen to this: ‘We find in fact that the antecedent of that is often personal.’ Now, that’s very instructive.”

“Very,” we said, “And if you want an example, take Matthew 2:1 ‘… there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews?’ Imagine how that simple clause could get loused up if someone wanted to change that to who!”

“Exactly,” he said, “That’s what I mean about Fowler. What was the sentence again about the star? Say it again.”

We repeated, “And lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.”

“You see?” he said, happily. “This is the greatest damn book ever written.” And he left our office transfigured, a man in excellent spirits. Seeing him go off merry as a gig, we realized that Christmas is where the heart is. For some it is in a roll of red ribbon, for some it is in the eyes of a young child. For our visitor, we saw clearly, Christmas was in a relative pronoun. Wherever it is, it is quite a day.

– EB White, “Relative Pronouns” from Writings from The New Yorker 1927 – 1976, edited by Rebecca M. Dale (New York: HarperCollins, 1990).

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