Grammar Wednesday

Wow, you guys! I’ve been lazy about posting here, and I’m sorry. I’ll try to do better, I promise. There really is a lot going on in my professional life – I just haven’t made the time to write about it.

Okay; here’s this week’s Grammar Wednesday edition. Last week, Frumteacher asked about the distinction between “that” and “which” (and, by the way, you should go read her when you’re done here – she’s one of my (many) favorites).

I spent a decent bit of time this past week thinking about this question, and trying to discern if I had ANY clue about what the difference is between these two structures. I tried to be mindful of the things I said when I spoke or the choices I made when I wrote, and I found that the word that I use is determined entirely by my sense of aesthetics – I use the word which feels or sounds more correct (see? I did it there, even – I could have said “the word that feels or sounds more correct” but, for me, which works better there).

John, one of my linguist buddies (I LOVE my linguists! I learn so much from them!) sent me an email with a couple of links to check out during my investigation of the that/which question. While I suspect him of trying to head off at the pass any kind of prescriptivism on my part, I was really grateful for the information. One of the links he sent me was this one – Geoffrey Pullum writes on Language Log that:

There is an old myth that which is not used in integrated relative clauses (e.g. something which I hate) and that has to be used instead something that I hate). It is completely untrue. The choice between the two is free and open. The people who repeat the old story about which being banned do not respect the prohibition in their own writing (Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage points out a book by Jacques Barzun which recommends against it on one page and then unthinkingly uses it on the next!). I don’t respect it either — re-read that last parenthesis. As a check on just how common it is in excellent writing, I searched electronic copies of a few classic novels to find the line on which they first use which to introduce an integrated relative, to tell us how much of the book you would need to read before you ran into an instance:

  • A Christmas Carol (Dickens): 1,921 lines, first occurrence on line 217 = 11% of the way through;
  • Alice in Wonderland (Carroll): 1,618 lines, line 143 = 8%;
  • Dracula (Stoker): 9,824 lines, line 8 = less than 1%;
  • Lord Jim (Conrad): 8,045 lines, line 15 = 1%;
  • Moby Dick (Melville): 10,263 lines, line 103 = 1%;
  • Wuthering Heights (Bronte): 7,599 lines, line 56 = 0.736%…

Do I need to go on? No. The point is clear. On average, by the time you’ve read about 3% of a book by an author who knows how to write you will already have encountered an integrated relative clause beginning with which. They are fully grammatical for everyone. The copy editors are enforcing a rule which has no support at all in the literature that defines what counts as good use of the English language. Their which hunts are pointless time-wasting nonsense.

I also looked the question up at and found this:

that / which (restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses). The standard rule requires that you use that only to introduce a restrictive (or defining) relative clause, which identifies the person or thing being talked about; in this use it should never be preceded by a comma. Thus, in the sentence The house that Jack built has been torn down, the clause that Jack built is a restrictive clause telling which specific house was torn down. Similarly, in I am looking for a book that is easy to read, the restrictive clause that is easy to read tells what kind of book is desired.
By contrast, you use which only with nonrestrictive (or nondefining) clauses, which give additional information about something that has already been identified in the context; in this use, which is always preceded by a comma. Thus you should say The students in Chemistry 101 have been complaining about the textbook, which (not that) is hard to follow. The clause which is hard to follow is nonrestrictive in that it does not indicate which text is being complained about; even if it were omitted, we would know that the phrase the textbook refers to the text in Chemistry 101. It should be easy to follow the rule in nonrestrictive clauses like this, since which here sounds more natural than that.

Some people extend the rule and insist that, just as that should be used only in restrictive clauses, which should be used only in nonrestrictive clauses. By this thinking, you should avoid using which in sentences such as I need a book which will tell me all about city gardening, where the restrictive clause which will tell me all about city gardening describes what sort of book is needed. But this use of which with restrictive clauses is very common, even in edited prose. If you fail to follow the rule in this point, you have plenty of company. Moreover, there are some situations in which which is preferable to that. Which can be especially useful where two or more relative clauses are joined by and or or: It is a philosophy in which ordinary people may find solace and which many have found reason to praise. You may also want to use which to introduce a restrictive clause when the preceding phrase contains a that: We want to assign only that book which will be most helpful.

One thing that I, personally, have a problem with is the use of that to apply to people. I KNOW it’s perfectly acceptable and has been going on for centuries now, but I much prefer “the woman who ran the red light was lucky to avoid an accident” to “the woman that ran the red light…” It’s a personal preference thing for me, and I’m standing by it.

Happy Wednesday, Everyone!



Filed under colleagues, Grammar

11 responses to “Grammar Wednesday

  1. Great lesson Mrs Chili! I suddenly remember that the explanation given by Bartleby is the one I was taught in high school. It’s funny to see how apparently not many people stick to those rules, and how it’s merely question of personal preference. Thanks for this informative post!

  2. And of course, thanks for the link and honor you give to my blog!

  3. wordlily

    Well, what you call personal preference is taught as law by the newspaper style guide, The Associated Press Stylebook. People should not be referred to with that.

    The Stylebook also basically follows what you’ve outlined from Bartleby, except it takes it a bit further: Only use which to introduce an essential clause if that is used as a conjunction to introduce another clause in the same sentence.

    Of course, AP is kind of prescriptive. 🙂 And rules that may make sense for a straight-news story may not be necessary in a novel.

    I’m now wondering, though, if this usage is part of why I’ve never made it past the first chapter of Wuthering Heights …

  4. It was Geoffrey Pullum that wrote that, not Mark Pilgrim.

    I wonder where this “standard rule” with that/which comes from. Strunk and White mention it, but White doesn’t follow it in his prose. Anyway, you can always tell whether a clause is nonrestrictive by the comma.

  5. Frumteacher, my pleasure.

    Lily, I kind of forced my way through Wuthering Heights, too, but for different reasons.

    John, you’re right. Geoffrey Pullum wrote the article, but he was quoting Pilgrim for part of it, and it was that which confused me. I’ve fixed my entry. Also, are you TRYING to make me crazy by saying it was “G.P. THAT wrote”?!

  6. My head hurts.

    I was getting worried, Mrs Chili, that you hadn’t posted in so long. Now I can relax…

  7. Yes, ma’am! “That” just doesn’t work for me with a person either. It’s “who,” or “whom,” thank you. 🙂

  8. i totally agree with you and CTG – i get very annoyed when people use “that” to refer to people. i am not an object! 😛

  9. darren

    I guess it really comes down to who’s doing the prescribing (when it comes to “that” and “which”). I have had professors who were adamant that we follow the traditional rule (or “myth”), so in some cases preference had nothing to do with my choices. I like the AP stylebook rule cited above; in today’s media-driven society, who better to make prescriptions than those who do most of the writing that average people read day-to-day?

    As for what I do when I’m not paying attention, I think that generally I follow the “mythical” convention. I tend, however, to use “which” even in restrictive clauses when its antecedent [is that the right word?] is plural. This is not always the case, and I have no idea why it pops up sometimes and not others. That’s why I really like the idea of using “which” in a restrictive clause only when “that” has been used in the same way in the same sentence. Will I do it? Probably not 🙂

  10. Great post! Thought you might be interested in my classic reading list of novels.

  11. Interesting post! The use of “that”, “which”, and “who” is something I constantly have to watch when I proof my writing. I prefer your take on “that” and “who” as well.

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