language

Shaping water as with words

With the Oscars this Sunday, I thought it would be fitting to muse about The Shape of Water.

My immediate thoughts were conflicted: gorgeous, yes, lyrical, yes, but it also felt too closed. Like a perfect circle that doesn’t hold a mirror to anything we could ever experience. 

Argue fantasy and fairy tales, and that’s true with this film, but I am a constant critic.

Why escape to the 1950’s? Who is nostalgic and warm and safe here? I’ve grown uncomfortable in these clothes, these roles. 

On the other hand, I loved that it ended with a poem, one which left me thinking, Wait, who wrote that?

"Unable to perceive the shape of you,
I find you all around me.
Your presence fills my eyes with your love,
It humbles my heart,
For you are everywhere.”

The state of poetry is thriving. Online it’s easy to find vibrant debate, dissection, and dedication to a craft that is (truly) old as dirt. And I love it. 

Just asking the question “who” can open a discussion and wealth of new knowledge for novice poetry readers.

I immediately searched online, trying to find who wrote the poem at the end of The Shape of Water. While I didn’t find any definitive answers per say, what I did unearth was a forum full of discussions over this very topic. 

Some suggested the poet was Saint Symeon. Others were adamant it was Rumi. (And at first their enthusiasm and confidence convinced me the most.) Others mentioned poetic origins hailing from different worldly corners and traditions, from Islam to Greek mythology. And others thought it was original, a poem written by del Toro himself.

I think it's special that a poem spoke to so many, and in a film with that massive of an audience. The poetic tradition is full of different lineages and the concluding poem in The Shape of Water speaks to that layered, interwoven identity.

When I write, I also feel like I'm making shapes. Language is so malleable, both soft like clay and hard like brick. It can become so much and soak up what you let it soak. The shape of words isn't so singular as it is possibilities—an infinite polyphony, as water also flows into whatever contains it.

 

Words w/ Friends_ 001: That vs. Which

What better way to start off this new series (W/w/F) than with a grammar quandary of my own. For the life of me, I never seem to commit this one to memory (or I constantly second-guess myself), so inevitably I end up pestering Google with the same question over and over again...

Should I use “which” or “that”?

Well, What's The Big Fuss About?

I think this question is particularly challenging because it involves grammatical concepts that aren't as crucial in everyday speech as they are written down. Just talking day-to-day, it's likely you use these two connectors interchangeably. And it works because you've got so many other factors to aid comprehension (i.e. facial expressions, body gestures, tone, etc.)

This is definitely more of a concern with formal, technical writing.

Knowing when to use one over the other can make all the difference when it comes to communication and comprehension. Clarity is invaluable in legal briefs and tech manuals, among other places. 

The "Rule" That's Not Really A Rule

So let's get right to it:

  • Use “that” when the clause is necessary, i.e. the entire meaning of the sentence would be insufficient or unclear without whatever follows “that.”

  • Use “which” when the clause isn’t needed, i.e. the entire meaning of the sentence would be kept intact and perfectly clear without whatever follows “which.”

Let’s examine this (deceptively) simple distinction in practice:

1.    Apples that have bruised skin are sometimes not safe to eat.

2.    Apples, which come in a variety of colors, are sometimes not safe to eat.

You can see how the clausal material in the second sentence is extraneous information; one does not need to know that apples come in lots of colors to know they are sometimes not safe to eat.

However, the first sentence contains a restrictive phrase, or one that focuses the reader’s attention on something. Knowing that apples with bruised skin may not be safe to eat is necessary information to understanding the entire sentence.

As it turns out, a lot of times the distinction between "that" and "which" lies in the direction of the reader's attention. I view it less as a rule and more so as a tool for more clear communication.

When asking yourself, “That vs. which?”, consider the sentence without the clause it’s connecting. If the sentence is unclear without the clause, then use “that.” If the sentence operates just fine without the clause, then use “which.”

Review Your Skills

Now for a quick quiz! (Everyone’s favorite, I know.)

1.    Melissa decided to meet Tami at the bodega (that/which) had seven cats keeping watch out front.

2.    The teacher was impressed and gave a high grade to Kat’s paper (that/which) was admittedly very well-written.

3.    The home (that/which) is next to a lake recently got renovated for flood safety.

Answer key is in the first comment!

Did you get all three correct? Let me know if this cleared up a super common grammar question for you. (I know it certainly helped me commit this one to memory finally!)