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which that which

I know that not every Gentle Reader gets all het up about grammar. Well, as with Jon Carroll’s cats, you have been warned.

Arnold Zwicky, over at language log, has been on a kick, lately, about the which/that rule. It began, more or less, with Don't do this at home, kiddies!, wherein he mocks William Safire for dispensing a Great Writer Exception allowing Saul Bellow to use which in a restrictive clause. Among the other problems, Mr. Zwicky points out that it is perfectly permissible to use which in a restrictive clause, and that the so-called ‘rule’ about it is simply the expressed preference of H.W. Fowler, who by preference wanted to reduce choices, or at least to increase the number of situations in which there is only one ‘correct’ word to be used. This makes it easier to tell the educated from the miseducated, although it doesn’t do much for language and literature.

OK, to go back. If you are putting in a nonrestrictive relative, that is, a clause that describes a thing you have already fully identified, you introduce the phrase with the word which, as in Confusion Corner, which is a sort of Y. That comes pretty naturally to people, and doesn’t seem to cause much confusion. We don’t use that for such clauses, as in Confusion Corner, that is a sort of Y. It sounds clunky, and although there was a time when you would come across that sort of thing, by my grandfathers’ time (and H.W. Fowler’s), it was Not Done.

If, however, the clause is intended to further define the thing, it is a restrictive relative, as in one of those corners which are sort of Ys. Such clauses are introduced either with which or that; it would be perfectly proper to say one of those corners that are sort of Ys. Either is fine. Both sorts are used in formal English. Grammar books allow either. True, Mr. Fowler felt that it seemed only fair for which, having forced that out of nonrestrictive clauses, to withdraw from restrictive ones, but he admitted that it did not in fact do so, nor has it done so in the last eighty years.

One reason that Mr. Fowler’s preference didn’t take may be that as a rule it is entirely unnecessary. Take a phrase I used recently: it wouldn’t shock me to see legislation introduced as part of the package that would expressly prevent the new money from interfering with corporate governance. If I had instead written ... as part of the package which would expressly prevent ..., would any Gentle Reader be misled? That is, is it at all likely that a person reading the which version would think “oh, well, he’s using which so my Humble Blogger must have simply meant that he would be surprised to see legislation introduced, the clause not being restrictive in nature.” No. even in a convoluted sentence like mine above, there is no real possibility for confusion on that matter. The confusion would be because the sentence itself meanders, and might better have been it wouldn’t shock me to see, as part of the package, legislation which/that would expressly prevent the new money from interfering with corporate governance, thus eliminating the possibility that the clause in question modifies the package next to it, rather than the legislation on the other side. But which or that is a stylistic choice. Replacing one with the other does not muddy the meaning.

True, there are circumstances where using which might, conceivably, lead a person to wonder if the sentence is mispunctuated. It’s easy enough to construct such circumstances. He played music which was inappropriate for the occasion might be an error for He played music, which was inappropriate for the occasion, whereas He played music that was inappropriate for the occasion mightn’t. I’ll add two points about that. First, such circumstances although easy to construct do not actually occur in the wild with any great frequency. Second, it seems silly to me to declare a general rule because on occasion its lack might lead somebody to wonder if a real mistake has been made. If we trust the author’s punctuation and proofreading, then we don’t have a problem with which. If we don’t trust the author’s punctuation and proofreading, then perhaps we oughtn’t trust their word choice, either.

Besides, YHB wouldn’t take issue with a rule expressed as something like ‘when using which to introduce a restrictive clause, check to see if the resulting sentence might lead a person to doubt your punctuation and therefore your meaning, and consider using that instead.’ We think of them more as guidelines, arrrr.

However, many style manuals and such not only strongly prefer that in all restrictives but state that which is an error. Therefore, O Gentle Reader, take into account that the person who reads your writing may well not only think that which is bad usage, but may think that you are an ignoramus for not knowing the (nonexistent) rule. In general, screw ’em, but on the other hand, if you happen to be writing a college application essay, a cover letter, or even a formal essay for publication, you may want to swallow your stylistic pride and choose that even where which is more euphonious. Or not. You pays your money, you takes your chances. Be aware.

But don’t, please don’t, be one of those people who thinks that which users are ignorant. Do not mock Franklin Roosevelt for saying, correctly, that December 7, 1941 was a day which would live in infamy; it would not have been clearer or more grammatical had he used that. And for fuck’s sake, people, when the court writes that “The Texas statute furthers no legitimate state interest which can justify its intrusions into the personal and private life of the individual”, the clause is restrictive, and if you don’t think so, then you have been, in the words of Mr. Zwicky, Smokin' too much Fowler.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,


I learned the that/which "rule" a while ago, and use it pretty religiously, but don't usually care if others do.

He played music; that was inappropriate for the occasion.

I insert thats where other people wouldn't, for clarity. I don't think I'm going to the store today; I don't think that I'm going to the story today. That may just be ornery verbosity, but I find constructions like "I don't think I'm blah" confusing when I read them sometimes, so.

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