Testing, testing

I’m posting Katharine’s comment about how to tell that phrase “at which point” turns a sentence into a fragment because it brings up a technique I discovered while looking for help teaching freshman composition: intuitive grammar tests.

Most native speakers, I assume, use intuitive tests from time to time. The one everyone seems to know tests whether “I” or “me” is correct in sentences like:

They’re coming with Jane and I.

The test: eliminate “Jane.”

They’re coming with I. WRONG

They’re coming with me. RIGHT

So:

They’re coming with Jane and me. RIGHT

Turns out there are all kinds of useful tests, but nobody ever tells you what they are.

Katie’s test for “at which point”: insert a comma after “at which point” and see how it sounds.

The rules for what sorts of words can modify complete sentences seems somewhat arbitrary–i.e., not based entirely on meaning. “However” can introduce a complete sentence; “though” can’t. “At that point” can; “At which point” can’t. One way to test for this is to see if it works to pause–-or add a comma–-after the phrase in question. Cf:

“However, I did snap at friends, abruptly accessing huge depths of fury I wouldn’t have thought I possessed.” (fine)

“Though, I did snap at friends, abruptly accessing huge depths of fury I wouldn’t have thought I possessed.” (weird)

“At that point, you realize that it doesn’t express one more advantage…” (fine)

“At which point, you realize that it doesn’t express one more advantage.” (weird)

This may relate to where the intuitive ear comes in.

7 thoughts on “Testing, testing

  1. Sorry, starting a sentence with “At which point, …” sounds fine to me, as long as the previous sentence ended with a clearly defined time or event. I suspect that you are over-correcting for the that/which distinction at the beginning of subordinate clauses,where the restrictive/non-restrictive test applies.

    Like

    1. Hi gasstation!

      I don’t see where the that/which distinction changes things …. both “which” and “that” are subordinators, so they turn the clause that follows into a fragment.

      I want the book THAT IS ON THE TABLE. “That is on the table” is a restrictive clause and, when punctuated as a sentence, a fragment.

      I want this book, WHICH IS ON THE TABLE. “Which is on the table” is a nonrestrictive clause and, when punctuated as a sentence, also a fragment.

      (Or were you thinking of something else?)

      Like

  2. I agree with the prior comment.

    Say out loud:
    I heard the comma in my head. At which point, I concluded this phrase was fine.

    People say that all the time. It doesn’t sound weird. It may be wrong, but not based on ear.

    Like

  3. What’s based on ear, I should clarify, is whether it sounds weird to a particular person. Different people have different ears for what sounds grammatical, and this applies to a wealth of different sentence types. Many people aren’t bothered by dangling modifiers–at least some types of dangling modifiers.

    Depending on the particular issue, there is more or less of a consensus. Clearly this one is in the latter category!

    Like

  4. Allison writes: “I heard the comma in my head. At which point, I concluded this phrase was fine.”

    That sounds great — BUT it sounds great as an intentional fragment. I wouldn’t use that construction in formal, academic writing; I would use it in blog/email/Facebook writing.

    Like

  5. Today Catherine and I discussed a less ambiguous test than the comma test: the possibility of movement. A sentence modifier can be moved to different positions in a sentence; something that only modifies parts of sentences (e.g., sentence fragments) cannot. So compare what happens when we move “at that point” (a sentence modifier) with what happens when we move “at which point” (a fragment modifier):

    At that point, I concluded that the phrase was fine.
    I concluded, at that point, that the phrase was fine.
    I concluded that the phrase was fine at that point.
    (This last sentence is actually ambiguous because “at that point” can also modify things within the sentence).

    Now compare:
    At which point, I concluded the phrase was fine. (slightly weird to my ears)
    I concluded, at which point, that the phrase was fine. (very weird!)
    I concluded that the phrase was fine at which point. (ditto!)

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s