“…microscopes which will increase the number of jobs…”

My thoughts today are on an omitted comma.

“The objective is to manufacture biomedical supplies such as optical devices, prepared slides, and microscopes which will increase the number of jobs available for city residents.”

This is from another essay on the co-op farm in a city one of my students referred to as “New Heaven.” (That goes along, perhaps, with a senator who used to represent Connecticut: as one student named him, Christ Dodd…)

Among the enterprises city planners hoped to attract to their planned development was the manufacture of biomedical supplies. We speculated in class about what that term might comprise, and the student here incorporated some of those specifics. But she also incorporated an adjective clause, and that was her downfall.

I continue to distinguish between “which” and “that” as the pronoun beginning an adjective clause, generally assigning “which” to nonrestrictive (“defining,” in my lingo) clauses and “that” to restrictive (“specifying”) clauses. This differentiation can be associated with the correct punctuation for the type of adjective clause—comma with “which” and no comma with “that.”

A comma to accompany the “which” in this passage would go part of the way toward improving the clarity of the utterance, but we would still have a question: to what noun does the “which” refer? What is the adjective clause modifying? We don’t really have a lot of choices: either “objective” or one of the specific biomedical supplies. By position, so crucial an issue for adjectives, even with the comma the adjective clause has to modify “microscopes.” If we try to associate it with “objective” we are thwarted not only by the sentence order but also by the fact that an objective per se cannot increase the number of jobs, although the objective might be to increase the number of jobs. This is a “you knew what I meant!” moment, for sure. And my reply is the same as ever: “Of course I knew what you meant. That’s how I knew you didn’t say it.”

The grammar of the sentence dictates that those microscopes will increase the number of jobs, and that’s what makes the sentence so peachy. Considering the employment picture of today, we might need a microscope to find the jobs, especially in an inner-city area. Good old microscopes, which make tiny things visible to the naked eye: in a sense, they make tiny things bigger. Well, at least the tiny things look bigger.

Microscopes don’t generally increase the number of things under the lens, though, in appearance or in reality.

Still, we might recommend to politicians that in addition to smoke and mirrors they might want to employ microscopes in this electoral cycle, to give the public a sense that the number of jobs is growing, or that it would be growing under their plan. Sure looks bigger, and isn’t that what you want to think they mean?

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About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

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