Monday, March 22, 2010

Oh, that

­­­Since being given a thorough thumping by Professor Geoffrey Pullum in 2008, I have not returned to the which thicket, but a former Sun colleague now operating elsewhere has called for assistance. His shop includes editors from different backgrounds who do not agree on that/which usage.

In 1926 H.W. Fowler suggested in Modern English Usage that it would be a good thing to use that for restrictive clauses and which for nonrestrictive clauses.

We interrupt continuity to discuss the vexatious terminology. You may have been taught different terms. Fowler referred to “defining clauses.” You may have been taught “restrictive,” “limiting,” or “essential” as the terms for clauses that limit meaning, identifying one out of two or more possibilities, and “nonrestrictive,” “non-limiting,” or “non-essential” for information that is merely additional or parenthetical.

Restrictive: “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light.”* Not all people, but the specific class of people who have been in darkness. Nonrestrictive: “Jainism, which was born at about the same time as Buddhism, has had a great impact on Indian culture.” The coincidental rise of Buddhism is not an essential element of the sentence. The former class of clauses is not set off by commas; the latter is.

To get back to Fowler’s distinction, the first thing to stress is that this is not a rule. He merely offered that observing it would be a “gain in both lucidity & ease,” a recommendation that Garner’s Modern American Usage stoutly maintains.

The distinction is frequently, but not universally, maintained in American English, especially in written English, but British and Commonwealth writers continue to use which in both restrictive and non-restrictive senses, and nobody complains.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, after a discussion of the historical switches back and forth, comes to this:

We conclude that at the end of the 20th century, the usage of which and that—at least in prose—has pretty much settled down. You can use which or that to introduce a restrictive clause—the grounds for your choice should be stylistic—and which to introduce a nonrestrictive clause.  

So if you are writing for American readers, observing the that/which distinction is a safe and advisable course. But unless you can identify some actual ambiguity that would lead to misunderstanding, it’s not a matter worth fretting over.

I am a little disconcerted, however, to see in newspaper journalism increasing instances of that clauses that are plainly nonrestrictive. Perhaps it is just another example of the carelessness and sloppiness characteristic of journalism. But – I want to be charitable – perhaps reporters are adopting it because of their immersion in the prose of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when the nonrestrictive that was common.

*I can’t resist saying again that you were mistaught if you were told that that may not be used to refer to people. That is a perfectly acceptable pronoun to identify groups of people, as in the example sentence, or a person whose name is not known.


  1. Please allow me to quote from the classic Robert H. Williams column, published in the Washington Post in 1978, on what it means to be a copy editor:

    "A friend, visiting in Washington several years ago, asked me what it is, exactly, I do for a living, and when I told him my duty was to change "that" to "which" and "which" to "that" wherever those words appear, he looked at me as if I were quite mad, which may be the case after 20 years of trying to get printers to put in the fourth dot when an ellipsis ends a sentence."

  2. I worked with an editor once for whom that/which was the #1 editorial peeve ... sigh ... despite her cracking the whip at me, I STILL don't think I've exactly mastered this one!

  3. That that involves that or which is that that is always fascinating. I'm for burning some of the whiches.

  4. I could not get the link to the "thorough thumping" to work and wonder which was your preference before it and why you changed it (if you did). When I was editing scientific reports there were many, many instances when the distinction really helped comprehension (i.e., without having to use more words to make the meaning clear-- that's what I like about the lovely distinction: how it really means a lot in a very succinct way, which really helps in already long complicated sentences).

    And, since it is still considered a style issue, and your former Sun colleague (by the way, I still haven't figured out how to italicize in these comment boxes) is working with people who disagree, but obviously in the same shop, someone in charge needs to decide what their house style is and end the debate if they want to keep their publication consistent on this matter. I hope they choose to maintain the distinction if their publication is highly technical and/or meant to educate (so there is less miscomprehension), and I especially hope they STRONGLY discourage the use of "that" clauses with non-restrictive clauses. Actually, the wrongness of that usage, to my mind, actually argues for the teaching of the distinction--if for no other reason than to keep people from using "that" with non-restrictive clauses. Sure, let them use whichever for the restrictive ones if they must, but if you don't address the issue of the difference between the words, how will they know to avoid using "that" with non-restrictive clauses if newspapers aren't. The value of the distinction in meaning will be lost, and a lot of old farts who maintain the distinction for clarity will be confused or get sick of wading through all the extra text that would be necessary to make the meanings clear in any case in which it's even offered.

  5. The restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses help me to understand whether to use that or which, but a high school English teacher taught me and her other students well. This was one of about a dozen lessons that I carried with me through my editing and writing.

    This morning, however, I heard another usage that grated on my aural sensibilities: The House had "an historic vote" on the health care legislation. Hearing this frequently on radio, I just about put "an hand" to "an heart" and hung "an head" in dismay.

  6. should "...mistaught if you were told that that my not be use..." not be "...mistaught if you were told that that may not be used..."?

  7. Actually, some Brits do care about the which/that distinction -- eg, the senior subs at (London) Times.

    I've never been able to understand their explanations in our Style Guide: I have to work on the rule that we always use that except when it's impossible.

  8. MS Word always seems to suggest the other word; If I use "which", it suggests "that", and vice-versa.

    But this post has cleared it up for me, thanks!

  9. Of course, ONLY "which" can be used if it's governed by a preposition, no matter if it's restrictive or not. The rule of which we speak carries its own contradiction.

    2 Kings 1:8 And they answered him, He was an hairy man, and girt with a girdle of leather about his loins. And he said, It is Elijah the Tishbite.

  10. Having read Professor Geoffrey Pullum's earlier post, I think he needs an editor.

  11. This morning, however, I heard another usage that grated on my aural sensibilities: The House had "an historic vote" on the health care legislation. Hearing this frequently on radio, I just about put "an hand" to "an heart" and hung "an head" in dismay.

    Perhaps the reporter is Cockney?

  12. That which is understood should be allowed to stand. Think about the deeper meaning and issues of life and that and which will fall by the wayside.

  13. @PC Rob: That's because Word has no idea which you should use; it's merely alerting you that there might be a problem.

  14. To my ears, using "that", rather than "who", in relation to people sounds wrong. However, I think "that" is perfectly appropriate in relation to "a people" in the ethnic or tribal sense, as in the example sentence. "The people that walked in darkness" is clearly suggestive of "a people" as opposed to a group of people.