The Telegraph has a grammar test compiled by Nevile Gwynne. Some of the questions are on the parts of speech, while others are really questions about usage. Gwynne takes a prescriptivist view that some might call traditional and others might call unencumbered by evidence and designed to produce language that’s too formal and stilted to be effective.
Tom Chivers criticises this aspect of the test; I agree.
But my beef is with question 11, which gives us a sentence and three possible conclusions to choose from:
“I should like to introduce you to my sister Amanda, who lives in New York, to my brother Mark who doesn’t, and to my only other sibling, Evelyn.”
- Evelyn is male
- Evelyn is female
- Impossible to know from the wording of the sentence whether Evelyn is male or female.
According to Gwynne, the correct answer is male:
The absence of a comma before “who doesn’t” makes that clause part of the definition of Mark, implying that there are other brothers. Try reading the sentence with the word “Mark” omitted.
This analysis is wrong.
We are in the territory of restrictive and non-restrictive clauses. Restrictive clauses give defining pieces of information and are not set off with commas, while non-restrictive clauses give additional, inessential pieces of information and are set off by commas.
Compare “the man who is eating cheese is guilty” (singling out the cheese-eating man as the guilty one, implying that there are other men in the frame) and “the man, who is eating cheese, is guilty” (saying that the only man in the frame is guilty and adding as an aside that he’s eating cheese).
But Gwynne misidentifies his own clauses.
In “my sister Amanda, who lives in New York”, “Amanda” is restrictive, implying that there are other sisters; “who lives in New York” is non-restrictive, and could be omitted without changing the rest of the meaning.
In “my brother Mark who doesn’t [live in New York]”, “Mark” is restrictive, implying that there are other brothers; “who doesn’t” is also restrictive, implying that there are other brothers called Mark. I don’t know what the parents were thinking.
So Gwynne has misapplied the conventions governing restrictive clauses.
But, more importantly, this is the kind of absurdity that arises when you rely on subtleties of grammar and punctuation to convey important differences in meaning. People – including people who publish grammar books and tout their services as grammar teachers – are likely to get it wrong and misunderstand.
Anyone uttering a sentence like the above, with whatever punctuation and whatever meaning in mind, is being silly.
Update: There has been a “correction”. Gwynne accepts that the original sentence didn’t rule out other brothers called Mark. The new version reads:
I should like to introduce you to my sister Amanda, who lives in New York, to Mark, my brother who doesn’t, and to my only other sibling, Evelyn.
And the new justification for Evelyn’s being male is:
The absence of a comma before “who doesn’t” makes that clause part of the definition of “Mark, my brother”, implying that there are other brothers. A comma after the words “my brother” would mean that there was only one brother.
It’s still wrong.
I agree that “Mark, my brother who doesn’t” implies that he’s not the only brother. But, using the same approach to commas and restrictive clauses, “my sister Amanda” still implies that she’s not the only sister. So poor Evelyn’s sex is still unknowable.
Adding a comma after “sister” would fix the sentence:
I should like to introduce you to my sister, Amanda, who lives in New York, to Mark, my brother who doesn’t, and to my only other sibling, Evelyn.
Although it would still be too ponderous and intricately self-satisfied to count as an effective piece of communication.
Update 2: See also my unbelievably positive review of Gwynne’s book.