It is the morning of Christmas Eve 2010, and in the spirit of giving and sharing, I am providing this 'extra' December post that contains one of my favorite Christmas essays by E.B. White, who gave me such joy as a child by bringing the fictional characters of Wilbur, Fern, Avery, Templeton and Charlotte into my life through his beautiful book, Charlotte's Web, which Santa left under the tree for me one dark Christmas morning. Today in honor of E. B. White, Charlotte and her web, I've posted an image of a spider's web at the top of this post — because the days when I first met Charlotte, I suppose I was looking for someone like her as I needed encouragement during those dark days, and, E.B. White provided it for me through her.
I say "dark Christmas morning," because in spite of our family's house giving the illusion of happiness (two Christmas trees —one filled with the many cards our family received and one filled with ornaments, three stockings (knitted by my mother for my sisters and me) stuffed with goodies, Christmas music playing throughout the house only interrupted by television holiday specials, I was very sad. My father had moved away and I did not know where he would be spending Christmas; my mother had gotten into the habit of crying non-stop; and I was experiencing little tumors (neurofibromas) growing all over my face. These made me feel ugly and unwanted as well as causing me to attribute my father's leaving to be motivated by the acceleration of my case of Neurofibromatosis, which I've had since birth (and have written about in an early post to this blog which you can read by clicking here).
If you know E.B. White's story, Charlotte's Web, you may recall that when one of the characters, John Arable (who is a farmer), discovers a new piglet is a runt, he decides to kill it. His eight year old daughter, Fern, persuades her father to let her keep the piglet as a pet and she names him Wilbur. Fern takes care of Wilbur for a while until he needs to be moved to a farm where he becomes very lonely. He soon is befriended by a spider named Charlotte, who not only keeps him company but also provides him with encouragement weaving the words "SOME PIG," "TERRIFIC," and "RADIANT" into her web.
As for another one of White's famous writings, Elements of Style (the grammar Bible) — no matter how much I study it, I seem unable to master some grammar rules such as what to do with commas, which is why I am so grateful to Ms. Peggy Wood for editing my blog for punctuation . . . or should I say that is the reason I am grateful to Ms. Wood? Commas, semi-colons, and whether to use 'which' or 'that' often plague me as a writer. However on this Christmas Eve morning, I received an early gift, and it is again from E.B. White, as he offers me insight into my that/which dilemma, and I receive some Christmas grace through White's essay, Relative Pronouns (written on Christmas Day in 1948). Now, I share it you with dear reader, Relative Pronouns, by E.B. White:
"We had a Scrooge in our office a few minutes ago, a tall, parched man (Harold Ross, editor of the New Yorker), beefing about Christmas and threatening to disembowel anyone who mentioned the word. He said his work had suffered and his life had been made unbearable by the demands and conventions of the season. He said he hated wise men, whether from the East or from the West, hated red ribbon, angels, Scotch Tape, greeting cards depicting the Adoration, mincemeat, dripping candles, distant and near relatives, fir balsam, silent nights, boy sopranos, shopping lists with check marks against some items, and the whole yuletide stratagem, not to mention the low-lying cloud of unwritten thank-you letters hanging just above the horizon. He was in a savage state. Before he left the office though, we saw him transfigured, just as Scrooge was transfigured. The difference was that whereas Scrooge was softened by visions, our visitor was softened by the sight of a small book standing on our desk — a copy of Fowler's Modern English Usage.'Greatest collections of essays and opinions ever assembled between covers,' he shouted,'including a truly masterful study of that and which.'"
"He seized the book and began thumbing through it for favorite passages, slowly stuffing a couple of small gift-wrapped parcels into the pocket of his great coat." 'Listen to this,' he said in a triumphant voice, 'Avoidance of the obvious is very well, provided that it is not itself obvious, but, if it is, all is spoilt. Isn't that beautiful?'"
"We agreed that it was a sound and valuable sentiment, perfectly expressed. He then began a sermon on that and which, taking as his text certain paragraphs from Fowler and warming rapidly to his theme.'Listen to this; If writers would agree to regard that as the defining pronoun, and which as the non-defining, there would be much to gain in lucidity and in ease. Some follow this principle now but it would be idle to pretend that it is the practice of most writers.'"
" "It was the practice of St. Matthew,' we put in hastily. 'Or at any rate he practiced it in one of the most moving sentences ever constructed: 'And lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.' You've got to admit that the which in that sentence is where it ought to be, as well as every other word. Did you ever read a more satisfying sentence than that in your life?'"
" 'It's good,' said our friend cheerfully. 'It's good because there isn't a ten-dollar word in the whole thing. And Fowler has it pegged, too. Wait a minute. Here. What is to be deprecated is the notion that one can improve one's style by using stylish words. See what I mean about Fowler? But let's get back to that and which. That's the business that really fascinates me. Fowler devotes eight pages to it. I got so excited once I had the pages photostatted. Listen to this: 'We find in fact, that the antecedent of that is often personal. Now, that's very instructive.'"
" 'Very,' we said. 'And if you want an example, take Matthew 2:2 . . . there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, Where is he that is born King . . . ? Imagine how that simple clause could get mixed up if someone wanted to change that to who!'"
"'Exactly,' he said. 'That's what I mean about Fowler. What was the sentence again about the star? Say it again.'"
"We repeated, 'And, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.'"
" 'You see?" he said happily. 'This is the greatest damn book ever written.' And he left our office transfigured, a man in excellent spirits. Seeing him go off merry as a grig, we realized that Christmas is where the heart is. For some it is in a roll of red ribbon, for some in the eyes of a young child. For our visitor, we saw clearly Christmas was in a relative pronoun."