odd relative, and more

Jonathan Lighter wuxxmupp2000 at YAHOO.COM
Sat Dec 10 15:02:23 UTC 2005

Sorry to say that the use of "which" to refer to human beings is indeed English - the dreaded English of Tomorrow.

  I have seen countless exx. of "which" for "who" since I began grading freshman themes in 1976.  The majority of students at all levels prefer "that," however.  Of equal interest, perhaps, is that they almost *never* use "who" in relative constructions.

  A very, very few also use "which's" and "that's" for "whose,"  even when referring to people.  I can't say that I've ever noticed these forms in speech, though.


"Arnold M. Zwicky" <zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU> wrote:
  ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
Sender: American Dialect Society
Poster: "Arnold M. Zwicky"
Subject: odd relative, and more

yesterday, from a gay friend in toronto, a postcard put out by CIRC,
the Canadian Immunodeficiency Research Collaborative. the photo is
of two buck-naked young men, viewed from behind, their knees drawn
up, jumping into a swimming pool; the picture is in some sense
"about" their butts. at the top: "WANTED!" across the photo: "tops
& bottoms". and at the bottom, the message, the first sentence of
which is:

"We are seeking HIV-negative men, ages 18-45, which have been a top
or bottom in the past six months to participate in a HIV-1 negative
invesigational vaccine research study."

well, that relative pronoun "which" (referring to men) really caught
my eye. this is just not english. for a moment i wondered if the
writer was dehumanizing gay men, but then i thought that the writer
was just very inept, possibly not a native speaker of english.

next: i would have set off the infinitival modifier "to participate
in..." with a comma.

then i started puzzling at the phrasing. "have been a top or bottom"
is code for "have engaged in anal intercourse" (in plain language,
which the CIRC couldn't have used on a postcard but would otherwise
have been the clearest option. "have fucked or been fucked by another
guy"). i guess this would work for the target audience, men who have
sex with other men, for whom "top" and "bottom" are used for roles in
anal intercourse, period. (note that the target audience isn't
otherwise specified, and that was probably intentional: "gay men"
would not have worked, because there are a fair number of men who
have sex, at least occasionally, with other men who don't think of
themselves as gay; they think of themselves as straight, or as
bisexual, or they are oriented sexually towards other men but reject
"gay" as being a social or political label that doesn't apply to
them. so it's fairly clever to select the target audience via the
photo and the references to tops and bottoms. still, i'll bet
they're not interested in straight guys who sometimes engage in anal
intercourse with women.)

finally, there's that stunningly clunky "HIV-1 negative
investigational vaccine research study". solid administrativese.
and not entirely clear: are they looking for men who are HIV-
negative, period (negative for both HIV-1 and HIV-2), which is what
the message says first, or for men who are specifically HIV-1-
negative (admitting HIV-2-positive men to the study), which is what's
said in the clunky compound? they probably don't get a lot of HIV-2-
positive guys in toronto, so the wording isn't likely to cause any
problems, but it's odd that the writer chose to do it both ways in a
single sentence. my guess is that "negative" doesn't belong in the
clunky compound at all, that what the CIRC is researching is a
vaccine for HIV-1 specifically. in any case, unpacking the compound
some would have made it easier to process: "a study researching a
vaccine for HIV-1". and the CIRC is almost surely looking for men
who are negative for both HIV-1 and HIV-2, so the earlier "HIV-
negative" should stand as it is.

arnold, cursed by a tendency towards close reading

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