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Pearl Harbor grammar snafu

FDR’s infamous Pearl Harbor speech snubs rules of grammar

Sheesh, what’s next, split infinitives?

Apparently, Franklin D. Roosevelt did not carry a copy of Oxford Guide to English Grammar on his person and felt that some things were more important than grammar in December 1941. One day after the United States was attacked by Japan at Pearl Harbor, on Dec. 8 of that year, Roosevelt gave his “Pearl Harbor Speech” in which he famously said, “Yesterday, Dec. 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy, the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”

Very eloquent, Franklin, but just one problem

What FDR should have said is, ” … a date that (not which) will live in infamy.”

So what up, FDR?

In the wake of the attack, while bombed and partially sunken ships were still smoldering in the harbor, I’m thinking that Roosevelt and his speech writers might have had a lot on their minds, and perhaps didn’t have access to the AP Style Guide or Grammarly.com in 1941. Still, every Dec. 7, when I hear the “infamy” speech played on news reports, I have to admit that it kind of bugs me that they got the grammar wrong.

How do you know whether to use that or which?

You don’t wanna go down in history like FDR, who we all can unanimously agree is mostly remembered for his enormous grammar gaffe during the Pearl Harbor speech (I’m not alone in thinking this, am I?). So, here’s the rule to remember: If the sentence doesn’t need the clause that the word in question is connecting, use which. If it does, use that. Here are some examples.

  • My car, which is blue, is in the driveway.
  • My car that is blue is in the driveway.

These two sentences have different meanings. In the first sentence, the person only has one car, and it’s blue. In the second sentence, the person has more than one car (and is kind of bragging about it), but is referring to the particular car that is blue.


This post is likely to be riddled with its own horrendous violations of standard and acceptable uses of the language, so please do not hesitate to point them out gleefully.

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