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“Proper” Diction?

Hi all; first time here. I could probably ask questions till everyone is blue in the face, but I’d just as soon be able to research them myself. At this point, my English is much more intuitive than intellectual; what “seems” right to me usually flies, but I’d like to know the “proper” way, so that when I “break” a rule, I am doing so consciously. The gist of the above is that terms like grammar, diction, and usage are blurry. I just know this is not a spelling/punctuation query; those types of answers I can find in my dictionary. Is there a recognized “bible” for word usage? Here is a typical question I would look for in said source: Which is more correct, “I have a watch that runs slow,” or “I have a watch which runs slow,” or I have a watch that runs slowly,” or “I have a watch which runs slowly”? I noticed some time ago that substituting “which” for “that” often yields results which I don’t find disagreeable, and it drives me nuts. I would appreciate any responses directed to: Thanks for your time!

  • January 20, 2004
  • Posted by slo
  • Filed in Usage

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either way would work i guess... good vocabulary and linguistic skills, especially if you aren't "from here"

anonymous January 24, 2004, 8:57pm

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"I have a watch which runs slow"
in this case i would always say; 'your watch is slow'

maybe avoid watch which because of the double w

oli January 28, 2004, 10:07am

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You have a watch, which runs slowly.

You have a watch that runs slowly.

If you want the comma/pause, you should use "which" (that necessitates the comma). Otherwise, "that" works as well. "Slowly" would be the proper term, though, as you want an adverb to describe the action verb, as opposed to using "slow" to describe a noun, such as the watch.

Sarah M. January 30, 2004, 11:06pm

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The Chicago Manual of Style, while quirky in spots, is the resource my typesetting company has used for many years. Understand that some rules are disputed and some situations have more than one OK solution.

speedwell2 February 3, 2004, 5:52am

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I had an English teacher who told me to always make sentences shorter and simpler and more direct.

I have a slow-running watch? Nope, guess not.

carriegood February 4, 2004, 10:00am

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And what would be wrong with "My watch is slow?"

speedwell2 February 10, 2004, 4:35am

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The Chicago Manual, while an excellent resource, isn't the best for this kind of question. Follett's Modern American Usage is more directly concerned with this kind of question (if you prefer UK English, check out Fowler's Modern English Usage). Follett goes on for about 4 pages on that/which, plus an appendix entry.

The difference here is between restrictive and non-restrictive clauses. The simple rule is this: if you can put a comma after "watch", then use "which." If it feels funny to put a comma there, then use "that."

The difference is less acute with a singlular than it would be with a plural, but "I have a watch, which is slow" suggests that you have exactly one watch; "I have a watch that is slow" implies you have another that isn't.

Adam Rice February 11, 2004, 6:54am

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Fowler's is always a good guide, especially for general English. For writing for a publication, using one of the recognised style guides is even better.
For which and that, a general rule (not always correct but almost) is that "that" defines and "which" describes. As Sarah wrote, if you state that you have a watch, and add the information that it runs slow, you would use "which" with a comma. Another example is "This is the house that Jack built". "This is a house, which Jack built."

aussieviking65 March 20, 2004, 11:39am

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If your job or academic marks depend on it, stick to company or school policy.
Outside that, go with the usage suitable to the social situation and your preferred presentation of yourself as an English speaker.
A language is not an army marching to a pre-ordained beat. It's a beautiful living everchanging city with long straight roads, little bendy backstreets and unexpected piazzas.

M Stevenson April 10, 2004, 10:18pm

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Definitely "slowly." Adding "ly" to the verb, makes it an adverb. Any verb which modifies another verb is an adverb. So you have the watch which "runs" - the verb "slow - ly" - the adverb.

And it's technically "which," but nobody really knows, so take your pick.

Gertrude September 3, 2004, 6:25pm

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I found it, I found it, oh, I'm so happy. I know the reason why you should use "that" and the reason why you should use "which." Sarah has it right but she doesn't explain WHY it's right.

It depends on two things called "dependent clauses" and "independent clauses." But it's SO easy I can't believe there is this degree of trouble over it. Compare:

"I have a watch that runs slow." (The fact that the watch runs slow is essential to the sentence. The speaker could have other watches that do not run slow, or he could be answering the question, "Why are you in the watch repair shop?")

"I have a watch, which runs slow." (The speaker has a watch. He goes on to describe the watch, but the basic information is that he possesses a watch. We could remove the clause about running slow without doing damage to the essential meaning of the sentence.)

Essential = dependent = use "that" without a comma.
Nonessential = independent = use a comma and "which."

speedwell2 September 4, 2004, 2:40pm

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In your latest comment, speedwell, why did you choose "slow" instead of "slowly?"

Our questioner is confused about this usage. A description of a watch seems to be the only case I can think of where "slow" would be acceptable as modifying "runs."

Could you, perchance, further explain the reasoning behind your choice?

Lew L. Deeps September 8, 2004, 10:06pm

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Hmm. Well, it isn't wrong to say something "runs slow," especially in my part of the country (Texas, but also the entire South). Really, it isn't wrong generally in English.

Adverbs are often made out of unmodified adjectives. Just using "run" as the example, I could make any of the following sentences:

For instance, I could say "This style of pants runs short, but this style of sweater runs big." (You will find that the pants are usually shorter than you expect, and the sweater somewhat bigger than its nominal size.) Or, "This play is running long." (The play is going over the intended time.) Or even, "Let the dog run free in the park." (Slip him off the leash and let him play as he pleases.)

The distinctions can be subtle. If the questioner would rather use "slowly," he will be understood, and it is true the word is the correct choice in the majority of situations (ex: "The sweat ran slowly down his tired face."). But as you pointed out, the case of the watch is pretty standard.

speedwell2 September 9, 2004, 4:16am

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Yes     No