Words, Which are Important

I haven’t been paying much attention to Occupy Wall Street. It initially looked to me like the kind of disorganized protest that happens all the time, doesn’t have enough focus, and quickly dissipates when anarchists show up to co-opt the whole thing. But now that it has successfully sustained itself for a couple weeks, it’s clear my initial perception was wrong. Today I noticed they’ve released their first official statement, and I read through it, thinking it would give me a better idea of who this group is and what they hope to accomplish.

The minutes of the meeting that agreed to this document are fascinating. They ended a long discussion of this document by saying (shouting?) THIS IS WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE! and it really does look like a working democracy. The meeting minutes are probably more useful for understanding the group than the official statement. It’s really impressive they’ve been able to hold this together so long without much formal leadership at all, and it’s exciting to be able to see the details of how that works in practice.

That said, the document itself isn’t great. It does very little to clarify what exactly the group is about, at least for someone like myself who is vaguely sympathetic. It’s just a long list of bad things corporations have done. The key question I had before reading it went entirely unanswered: is this group against corporations themselves, some general category of corporate behavior, or an unrelated collection of specific corporate misdeeds? It looks like the group itself hasn’t answered this question. I imagine there are more than a few dedicated communists in the group as well as people who maintain a generally positive view of corporations.

I mention all of this as context for a single word in this statement, which seems to exemplify where this group is right now. Emphasis added:

We come to you at a time when corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, run our governments.

I'd speculate most adults in America don’t know when to use "which" and when to use "that." But surely at least one person in the working group that created this document understood the difference. Unfortunately the meeting at which this document was drafted has no published minutes to tell us if they collectively considered an alternative:

We come to you at a time when corporations that place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, run our governments.

That single word change is pretty big. The published version suggests all corporations place oppression over equality. The alternative would say only some corporations do that, specifically those running our government. That single word is the difference between a campaign against corporate influence of government and a campaign against the very existence of corporations at all. Outside this statement, I don’t see much evidence Occupy Wall Street has defined its position on this issue. But here in this statement, they may have done so unintentionally.

I think we’re in good shape on the question of what democracy looks like. Is it too early to start worrying about what democracy writes like?

 
 
 
I agree that changing a single words shifts meaning in important ways; it may surprise you that a single punctuation mark can, too.

The first clause, the one that appears in the published document, is "non-restrictive" and uses not only "which" but also a pair of off-setting commas. That shows the clause isn't necessary to the meaning of the sentence because, as you said, it applies to all corporations and isn't identifying a particular group of them. Your suggested edit uses a "restrictive" or "identifying" clause. In some style manuals, you can use either "which" or "that" in this case. (I and probably you learned differently in HS English.) Whichever pronoun you use, the important distinction is that you must have no off-setting commas. With the correct punctuation, it would be "We come to you at a time when corporations that/which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality run our governments."

The difference becomes apparent if you read the two sentences aloud and pause at the commas.
 
 
 
 
Hello. And Bye.
 

Be number 3:

 
 
 
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