Which Witch? (Adventures in Grammar #6)

Orange leaves danced through the crisp air, and the harvest moon peeked over the horizon. Witches, warlocks, cats, frogs, and all sorts of creatures gathered in the glen, which was lit by a crackling bonfire. A hush fell over the glen as their judge emerged from his tree and flew to his perch.

The sage owl preened his feathers and peered down. “Who? Who? Who brings a case before me tonight?”

A ginger-haired witch stepped forward. “I do, your Honor. This trollop has stolen my new black cat!”

“How dare you?” spat the black-haired witch behind her. “She lies without shame, your Honor. It is she who has stolen my new cat!”

The sage owl looked from one witch to the other. He laid the tips of his wings together. “I see. And where is the cat now?”

“I’ve got him,” a warlock piped up. He pointed at the cat that was nuzzling his ankles. “Cute little fella, too.”

“Very well,” the sage owl proclaimed. “The plaintiff shall speak first. How was your cat stolen?”

The ginger-haired witch squared her shoulders. “I had just hopped on my broomstick for my nightly ride, which I usually take right after supper. The hat that I prefer to wear needed repairs, so I took it to the Mad Hatter for mending. I was only gone a few minutes more than usual, but when I returned, my little Snowball had vanished from his scratching post!”

The sage owl glanced at the black cat. “Snowball, you say?”

“Yes. And the next morning, I saw her carrying him through the bog in her grimy, thieving hands.”

“Liar!” snapped the black-haired witch. The two witches pointed their wands at each other.

The crowd, which had kept silent thus far, gasped.

“Order, order.” The sage owl swiveled his head to the black-haired witch, who grudgingly lowered her wand. “Now, what is your testimony?”

She shook her head. “I was just minding my own business, preparing a special potion that I make each year for All Hallows Eve. My little Marshmallow was helping me gather herbs.”

The sage owl glanced once more at the black cat. “Marshmallow?”

“Yes, Marshmallow. I sent him off to gather wolfbane, which he has fetched for me many times before, but he didn’t return home all day. I was sick with worry, but then I found him in the bog the next morning, as good as new. Then, out of nowhere, she ran up, accused me of stealing her cat, and snatched him from me!”

The sage owl laid his wingtips together again. “Very well… So, is it Snowball or Marshmallow? Which witch owns that cat?”

“Marshmallow,” called the black-haired witch. “Here, Marshmallow!”

“Come here, Snowball,” the ginger-haired witch coaxed.

The cat, being a cat, ignored both of them.

The owl looked from the cat to each witch in turn. Finally, he spread his wings wide with satisfaction. “I am prepared to make my wise judgment.”

The witches leaned forward. The crowd hushed.

“The cat,” proclaimed the sage owl, “shall be cut in two, with half given to each witch.”

“What?” shrieked the ginger-haired witch. “Never!”

“Are you out of your mind?” demanded the black-haired witch. “Cut Marshmallow in two? Egads, why don’t we just share him?”

“Now, there’s an idea,” said the ginger-haired witch.

“Wait,” the owl spluttered. “My wise judgment is a test! The true owner is supposed to be willing to give up the cat rather than see it harmed.”

“Your judgment’s hogwash,” said the black-haired witch.

“Really bad decision,” added the ginger-haired witch. As the owl ruffled his feathers, she turned to the other witch. “Do you still need help finishing your potion for All Hallows Eve?”

The black-haired witch smiled. “That would be lovely. Come, Marshmallow!”

“Come, Snowball,” called the ginger-haired witch. “I’ll fetch you some tuna.”

“We’ll have to agree on a name,” the other said.

The cat meowed at the mention of tuna and followed the witches from the glen. He had been looking for a witch who would take care of him, and living a double life as Snowball and Marshmallow, even for a brief time, had taken its toll. Maybe if they worked together, the witches would give him a more sensible name.

Happy Halloween! I hope you enjoyed this seasonal tale. It seemed like the perfect way to highlight a commonly misused word (“which”) with the added treat of its autumnal homophone (“witch”). The biggest point of confusion for many people is our grammar topic of the hour: when to use “which” versus “that.”

“Which” versus “that” is especially tricky because each of those words has multiple uses in the English language.

“Which” is often used as a pronoun to ask a question or follow a preposition:

  • Which witch owns that cat? [interrogative pronoun]
  • She tightly gripped the broomstick on which she flew.

It is also considered an adjective in some cases:

  • The graveyard was quiet until midnight, at which time the dead awoke.

“Which” is used as a relative pronoun for nonrestrictive clauses, meaning that the clause it leads could be removed without impacting the sentence’s meaning:

  • The crowd, which had kept silent thus far, gasped. [The crowd gasped.]

“That” could fill up its own blog series. “That” can serve as a pronoun, adjective, adverb, or conjunction. You might say it’s the hardest-working word in show business!

As an adjective, “that” is frequently used to clarify or compare:

  • Which witch owns that cat?
  • This broom flies higher than that

However, if we leave off the second “broom” in the previous sentence—i.e., “This broom flies higher than that”—then “that” becomes a demonstrative pronoun because it fully replaces the broom. Weird, right?

“That” is used as a relative pronoun for restrictive clauses, meaning that the clause it leads is necessary to the meaning of the sentence. In other words, it restricts the explanation that follows it. If you remove a correct clause beginning with “that,” it will alter the meaning:

  • He pointed at the cat that was nuzzling his ankles. [There are multiple cats in this scene, so we need the clause to clarify which one.]
  • The hat that I prefer to wear needed repairs. [The witch owns more than one hat.]

So, if you’re unsure whether to use “which” or “that” in a sentence, ask yourself whether the clause it begins is essential to the sentence’s meaning. Consider these examples:

  • They gathered in the glen, which was lit by a crackling bonfire. [This refers to a specific glen.]
  • They gathered in a glen that was lit by a crackling bonfire. [This indicates a number of glens, so we need the clause to narrow it down.]

There’s one more relative pronoun to discuss briefly here. “Who” can do the same job as “which” and “that” when discussing a person or people. If the clause is restrictive (same as for “that”), then you do not place a comma before “who.” If the clause is nonrestrictive (same as for “which”), then you do use a comma. Here are two examples:

  • The sage owl swiveled his head to the black-haired witch, who grudgingly lowered her wand. [Nonrestrictive, so it gets a comma.]
  • The cat had been hoping for a witch who would take care of him. [Restrictive, so it doesn’t get a comma.]

Here are some great additional resources that explain “which” and “that” usage: Daily Writing Tips, Grammarly, Grammar Monster.

I hope this  post lays out the devilish topic of relative pronouns more clearly for you. What other questions about pronouns lurk in the depths of your grammatical minds? Let me know in the comments, and we’ll figure them out!

In the meantime, Happy Reading, Happy Writing, and Happy Halloween!

XOXO,

Joy

Raising Voices and Rising Up: A Tale of Verbs and Freedom (Adventures in Grammar #5)

Two brothers, Dash and Dormi, once lived together in Obdura, a peaceful nation where each day passed like every other.

Every morning, Dash and Dormi woke at sunrise. They and their neighbors reported to their jobs via assigned buses and security checkpoints. By dusk, everyone went into their homes and slept all night with the help of a pill, just as the law required.

Dash, Dormi, and their neighbors acted only in accordance with the rulers’ laws, for the rulers maintained Obdura’s prized sameness. The people never feasted, but they never went hungry. They were never overwhelmingly happy, but they were never desperately sad. For decades, the rulers had carefully, firmly kept Obdura just as it was.

Like all their neighbors, the brothers obeyed. They never resisted, questioned, or wondered.

And they never dreamed.

One warm night, though, Dash couldn’t sleep. His pill simply didn’t work. This had never happened before. Tossing and turning didn’t help. Neither did a cup of tea. Dash counted, stretched, and breathed deeply, but nothing worked.

Dash considered. “I can’t lie awake all night. Maybe…”

It wasn’t allowed, but maybe a short, quiet walk would help. Just this once. Hesitantly, Dash rose, dressed, and left. The front door softly shut.

In his own room, Dormi slept on.

“CURFEW IN EFFECT FROM DUSK UNTIL DAWN.”

The street sign was difficult to read in the dark, but it was familiar. As Dash passed by, though, something occurred to him.

“I wonder why there’s a curfew.”

A few houses later, watching out for patrolling Peacekeepers, he looked around the quiet, tree-lined street. He was alone. The outlines of all the silent homes were identical.

“I wonder why they’re all the same.”

At the end of the street, Dash looked up into the clear, moonless sky, at all the uncountable flecks of light. His feet stopped. His jaw dropped.

For the first time in his life, Dash saw the stars. And he whispered:

“I wonder what’s out there.”

He had never broken curfew. He had never asked questions. And all his life, this beautiful sight had awaited him, right outside his door. Why had it been hidden?

Dash slowly returned home, sifting more questions in his mind. As he laid himself down, Dash considered everything he knew of Obdura: the rigid rules, the nightly pills, the Peacekeepers on already-peaceful streets, the unabating sameness… He spent the whole night thinking thoughts he had never thought before.

When the sun rose, Dash shook Dormi awake.

“Brother! I saw the stars last night. I’ve never seen anything like them. Will you come with me tonight?”

“What are you saying?” Dormi sputtered. “You went out after curfew? That’s against the law!”

“Yes, but why? Why do we have a curfew? Why are our houses identical? Why does every day look like every other day? Why do the rulers order us to work the same jobs and eat the same food and take the same pills at bedtime? Don’t you wonder?”

Dormi stiffened where he sat. “No, I don’t. Neither should you. Wondering isn’t safe.”

“But—”

“Don’t talk like this to anyone else, brother. You’ll only be unhappy—or worse, get into trouble.”

Dash heard his brother’s warning, but he couldn’t contain the new thoughts. After so many years of being stifled and pressed down, they confronted him at every turn. Why were they scanned and searched upon arrival at the factory? Why was everything, from the meals on their lunch trays to the assigned buses to and from work, so tightly regulated? Why were they required to take pills at bedtime?

Why weren’t they allowed to see the stars?

Dash quietly told his friends at work what he had seen.

“Are you going out again?” asked one.

“Can we come?” whispered two others. They lived on the next block.

Dash considered Dormi’s words of caution. But between wondering and safety, he had already chosen wondering. “Very well. But keep it quiet.”

That night, Dash didn’t take his pill. He retired to bed right after supper, just as he had told his friends to do, and woke near midnight. When he slipped out the front door, he found a half-dozen neighbors waiting in the shadows. Tears sparkled on their faces in the starlight.

“Why?” they demanded. “Why have we never been allowed to see this?”

On that night, as they crept to the dark end of the street to watch the stars and dove into bushes when a Peacekeeper vehicle rolled past, Dash and his neighbors realized what they needed, what they had been missing—the reason they were never overwhelmingly happy.

“We want freedom,” they whispered to each other. “We need freedom.”

In the days that followed, that whisper of freedom slipped through neighborhoods, along noisy factory floors, and across bus aisles. Word spread of the stars, and Obdurans everywhere began throwing away their nightly pills so they, too, could slip out their doors and catch glimpses of the night sky.

Dash invited his brother every night, and every night Dormi refused. He lay in his bed, captive to sleep. Upon waking every sunrise, though, Dormi hurried to his brother’s bedside to be sure he had returned safely.

Dash’s followers grew bolder. In the moonlight, a few teenagers pushed through the cracked window of an abandoned building and found it full of ancient texts. They had never seen books before. They took as many as they could carry and began to share them.

The rulers of Obdura, unfortunately, were not ignorant of these happenings—far from it. They gathered in secret and demanded reports from their Peacekeepers. They increased their patrols and began arresting anyone suspected of breaking curfew or other laws. Anyone caught disposing of their nightly pill was imprisoned and forced to take it under guard. Anyone caught with a book disappeared.

Dash and his fellow citizens began to raise their voices. They joined marches and waved signs. They demanded change. They set new expectations. They asked more questions by the day, even though the only answer ever given was, “You’re not permitted to ask.”

Sometimes, saying goodnight to Dormi, Dash felt a desperate sadness. However, when he watched someone open their first book or see their first stars, a taste of overwhelming happiness gripped him. Wherever he went, that hope was written on his face.

And the rulers could see it.

That hope could not be quashed by threatening Dash, they realized—not even by threatening his life. That threat would not stop him, and if they martyred Dash, the people would rise. The rulers could see only one way to break him:

Threaten his brother.

Dash was detained and brought into the Hall of Governance, a stoic building at the center of Obdura. The leaders told him plainly: Cease his protests, or Dormi would disappear.

Dash stopped.

When the Peacekeepers deposited Dash at his house, he went in without a word. That night, he slept under the influence of his pill until sunrise. He went quietly to work, ate quietly at lunchtime, and returned quietly to his home.

For days, Dash stayed silent and obedient. His followers were puzzled, discouraged. The leaders were pleased.

One night before bedtime, Dormi finally asked, “What’s happened, Dash? I thought that you were a leader with… Why have you stopped—stopped wondering?”

Dash shrugged. “The leaders threatened what I cannot lose.”

“Your life?”

“I wish,” Dash whispered. “Freedom isn’t worth losing my family.”

Dormi’s eyes went wide. For the first time, he truly saw his brother: the desperate sadness in his face, the yearning, the fear. Dormi saw what the rulers had taken from Dash, and what he saw angered him more deeply than he had ever thought possible.

“Don’t.” Dormi stopped Dash’s hand. “Don’t take that pill. Take me to see the stars.”

Dash blinked. “But—”

“I’ve been silent too long,” said Dormi. “I should have joined you long ago. Please, brother, forgive me. Let me fight them alongside you.”

That night, Dash took Dormi to see the stars. Side-by-side, hand-in-hand, the brothers finally saw the world not only as it was, but as it could be.

When the sun rose the next morning, the brothers left their house with signs in their hands. As they traversed the neighborhood, they raised their voices and signs.

Street by street, their friends and followers, parents and children, old and young, grabbed signs and joined Dash and Dormi. The growing army fairly shook the ground. Obdurans left their assigned buses mired in the clogged streets and joined the march. By the thousands, they pushed back the Peacekeepers, all the way to the doors of the Hall of Governance.

Inside the Hall, the rulers huddled. Their grasp on power was slipping.

Outside, the crowds chanted mantras of freedom and dignity. They demanded justice. They rejected feigned attempts to placate them. They scorned threats of retaliation.

After all that had happened, the people had realized the cost of losing. They had lost much and many already. They would risk their lives rather than give up hope.

And they would keep up the fight for as long as it took.

Surrounded, disgraced, and reviled, the rulers finally surrendered. The outnumbered Peacekeepers laid down their weapons.

The people won.

As their last act of leadership, the rulers transferred power to the people.

Together, the people built a new system of government. They granted equal rights and ended unjust systems. They restored dignity and freedom.

They changed their world.

Alongside their neighbors, Dash and Dormi began to build new, freer lives. They chose new careers and found opportunities that brought them overwhelming happiness. They found hope in the future.

And on every clear night, they took a long, peaceful walk to admire the stars.

 

I hope you enjoyed this story of intransigence and resistance! It was a challenging story to write on a structural level because I constrained a key component of composition: my verb choices. That brings me to our current grammar topic: transitive and intransitive verbs.

hocus pocus shock

First, what is a verb? It is a word that describes an action, occurrence, or state of being. Verbs comprise a fundamental, nearly universal part of human language because they tell us what “is” or what “happens.”

A verb is conjugated, or shaped, into different tenses (such as past, present, and future) to give it context. A verb also varies depending on whether its subject (the noun doing the action) is singular or plural.

In short, verbs are complicated! For today, we’re just going to focus on two specific types of verbs that are commonly misunderstood: transitive and intransitive verbs.

 

Transitive verbs are verbs that act upon direct objects (these are different than subjects). A direct object does not follow a preposition; rather, the action directly impacts it. Consider this sentence: “Dash invited his brother every night.”

  • The verb is invited.
  • Who did the inviting? Dash, which makes him the subject.
  • Whom did Dash invite? His brother, the direct object.

 

Here are a few more examples of transitive verbs in the story (verbs bold, objects underlined):

  • For the first time in his life, Dash saw the stars.
  • They joined marches and waved signs. They demanded change.
  • They would risk their lives rather than give up hope.

A good way to check whether a verb is transitive is to see if you can reverse the order of the sentence into passive voice. For example, “The stars were seen by Dash.” If you can, it’s transitive!

Also, note that verbs tied to emotions or states, like “Dash stayed silent” or “Dormi was frightened,” are not transitive verbs. You wouldn’t say, “Silent was stayed by Dash.”

 

Next, let’s talk about intransitive verbs. These are… all the verbs that aren’t transitive! If it doesn’t have a direct object, it’s an intransitive verb. Examples from the story (verbs bold):

  • Every morning, Dash and Dormi woke with the rising sun.
  • The people never feasted, but they never went hungry.
  • He went quietly to work, ate quietly at lunchtime, and returned quietly to his home.

No problem, right? Besides, this is the kind of esoteric grammar gobbledygook that isn’t super useful in real life…

OR IS IT?

Amy-Phoehler-What-Gif-On-Parks-Recreation

There are three pairs of very commonly confused verbs, and the primary reason for this confusion is that one verb in each pair is transitive, and the other is intransitive—kind of like the brothers in the story. Here are the mixed-up verbs and how to use them properly:

Lay: transitive (needs a direct object)

  • Now I lay me down to sleep. (“me” is like “myself” here—a direct object)
  • The Peacekeepers laid down their weapons.

Lie: intransitive (no object needed)

  • I can’t lie awake all night.
  • He lay in his bed, captive to sleep.

Raise: transitive

  • Dash and his fellow citizens began to raise their voices.

Rise: intransitive

  • If they martyred Dash, the people would rise.

Set: transitive

  • They set new expectations.

Sit: intransitive

  • Dormi stiffened where he sat.

Exception alert! “Set” can be intransitive when referring to the sun: “The sun set at eight o’clock.”

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Weird, right?

The common confusion between these transitive and intransitive verbs inspired this story, including its title: “Raising Voices and Rising Up.” Voices can be raised, but up cannot.

But what made this story particularly fun (and frustrating) to write is that I got the bright (ridiculous) idea to align my transitive and intransitive verbs to the plot!

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If you read back through, you might notice that I use only intransitive verbs at the beginning to describe the citizens of Obdura, indicating their lack of action or impact on the world around them; the rulers are the only ones with transitive verbs to describe them.

As Dash, his fellow Obdurans, and finally Dormi begin to rise up, their choices and actions are described with transitive verbs (except, of course, when Dash backs off to protect Dormi).

One laborious heck of an Easter Egg, but when you’re writing a grammar blog, you either go big or go home, right?

“Go big” is intransitive, by the way; “go home” is transitive. These verbs are everywhere!

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I hope today’s story and explanation have provided some clarity about transitive and intransitive verbs. Remember, the key difference between them is a “transfer” of action. If you’re unsure whether a verb is transitive, look for a direct object!

What other questions about verbs do you have? Let me know in the comments section, and check back in late September for our next Grammar Adventure.

In the meantime, happy reading and happy writing!

XOXO

Joy