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That and Which: Rule or Guideline?

A sentence in our recent article on spelling ruffled a few readers. See if you can spot what caused the commotion: “The other errant site offered a quiz which claimed that ‘inflammation of the membrane of the brain’ is spelled ‘meningitas.’ ”

Did you catch it? Our correspondents insisted “which” was wrong and should be replaced by “that.” For those unfamiliar with the prevailing assumptions about that and which, here is an overview:

Consider the sentence It was just something that came over me. According to most sticklers, when a dependent clause (that came over me) does not require a comma to introduce it, the relative pronoun that is indicated, and which would be wrong. Such a clause is called restrictive (or essential or defining).

Now consider the sentence Joe ordered eggs and toast, which he always enjoyed. When a dependent clause (which he always enjoyed) requires a comma to introduce it, the relative pronoun which is necessary, and that would be wrong. Such a clause is called nonrestrictive (or nonessential or nondefining).

These guidelines caught the public’s attention back in 1926, when H.W. Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, the bible of modern grammar, endorsed that for restrictive clauses and which for nonrestrictive clauses. Fowler’s suggestion has become law, even though Fowler himself was never strident about his theory, writing “it would be idle to pretend that it is the practice either of most or of the best writers.”

This is the background behind the scolding we received for using a restrictive which. Nonetheless, we stand behind our sentence and would not change it.

The language scholar Geoffrey Pullum has written, “What is actually true about expert users of English … is that they use both that and which in integrated relative clauses, in proportions that aren’t very far away from being 50/50.” We could start with the King James Bible: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” Jane Austen used the restrictive which, as did Macaulay, Dickens, Melville, Conrad, Lewis Carroll, and other literary luminaries right up to the present.

William Faulkner, awarded the 1949 Nobel Prize in Literature, was a champion of the restrictive which. As an experiment we opened Faulkner’s 1932 novel Light in August to a random page and immediately found “He just stared at her, at the face which he had never seen before.” President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s stirring Pearl Harbor speech before Congress began “Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy …”

Getting back to the offending sentence that started this flap, we’ll let this passage from Wilson Follett’s Modern American Usage explain our word choice: “[There are] many instances where being forced to use that leads to an intolerable repetition of sounds.” We wrote “a quiz which claimed that” simply because we cringed at the look and sound of “a quiz that claimed that.”

Those who swear by Fowler’s rule have a formidable array of language scholars aligned against them. Here is a small sample …

“You can use which or that to introduce a restrictive clause—the grounds for your choice should be stylistic.”— Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage

“This use of which with restrictive clauses is very common, even in edited prose. Moreover, in some situations which is preferable to that.” —American Heritage Usage Panel

“No one could plausibly insist that which as a restrictive relative pronoun is indefensible or incorrect.” —Wilson Follett, Modern American Usage

“This is a canonical case of a self-appointed authority inventing a grammatical theory, observing that elite writers routinely violate the theory, and concluding not that the theory is wrong or incomplete, but that the writers are in error.” —Mark Liberman, American linguist

“Follow the Fowler rule if you want to; it’s up to you. But don’t tell me that it’s crucial or that the best writers respect it. It’s a time-wasting early-20th-century fetish, a bogeyman rule undeserving of the attention of intelligent grownups.” —Geoffrey K. Pullum, linguistics professor, University of Edinburgh

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Posted on Tuesday, March 17, 2015, at 2:36 pm

Rules and Preferences

There were fervent protests from readers reacting to “Old Superstitions Die Hard.” The article established that the relative pronoun that refers to people as well as to things and has done so for centuries.

Never was an essay more aptly named.

“I don’t care what all of your quoted sources say,” wrote a fiery businesswoman. “Executive-level communications candidates who use ‘that’ do not endear themselves to this veteran headhunter.” One can understand her passion—the raw anger and frustration we all feel when a principle we’ve lived by for years is exposed as an old wives’ tale.

Meanwhile, we’ll leave it to you to decide whether those responsible for the following quotations are English-challenged hacks …

  • “I am he that walks unseen.” —J.R.R. Tolkien
  • “I am he that aches with amorous love.” —Walt Whitman
  • “… children that belonged to a man I didn’t even know.” —Mark Twain
  • “A man that hath friends must shew himself friendly: and there is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother.” —King James I, the Bible, Proverbs 18:24

Another reader took issue with Kingsley Amis’s preference for the man that I spoke to rather than the man whom I spoke to—but for a different reason: “I would have written ‘the man to whom I spoke.’ ”

The gentleman who wrote this believes that prepositions should not end sentences. It’s another of the myths about English that just won’t die, right up there with “Do not split an infinitive” and “Do not begin a sentence with And.” Amis set a trap, and this person fell into it. There is no living English scholar who will defend “Do not end a sentence with a preposition,” yet the superstition is still believed by an alarming number of intelligent people.

Here is what the snarky Mr. Amis himself had to say about it: “This is one of those fancied prohibitions dear to ignorant snobs … It is natural and harmless in English to use a preposition to end a sentence with.” Amis goes on to quote H.W. Fowler, the dean of English scholars, who wrote, “The power of saying People worth talking to instead of People with whom it is worth while to talk is not one to be lightly surrendered.”

We are all entitled to our preferences—even our prejudices—but declaring them rules everyone else must live by is crossing a line.


Pop Quiz

Pick the correct choices. Answers are below.

A) This is the man who got away with murder.
B) This is the man which got away with murder.
C) This is the man that got away with murder.

A) She is not someone to whom you want to be rude.
B) She is not someone whom you want to be rude to.
C) She is not someone that you want to be rude to.
D) She is not someone you want to be rude to.

A) I just saw Vada, who looks distracted.
B) I just saw Vada, that looks distracted.
C) A and B are both correct.


Pop Quiz Answers

1. A and C are both correct.
2. All choices are correct.
3. A is correct.

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Posted on Tuesday, September 16, 2014, at 1:09 pm

Old Superstitions Die Hard

People that try hard usually succeed. Is that sentence grammatical? Some nitpickers say the relative pronoun that should never refer to humans. Here is an interesting piece of mail that arrived recently:

Please review your “rule” about the use of “who” and “that” when referring to persons. The use of “that” when referring to people is very poor English and, unfortunately, has become today’s vernacular. I wonder if you could review your work here, so that students are not confused. I teach graduate students and I do not permit the distinctions you are making re this particular word usage. I cannot refer my students to your site for that reason.

The writer went on to say that using that instead of who, while “common today in vernacular English,” is “still eschewed in academic writing.” If we doubted this, we were advised to consult an online site called The Purdue Owl.

That is what we did.

According to the Owl, one may substitute that for who in informal English, but who is “more common in formal written English” and is “preferred”—although the Owl does not say who prefers it. Look at the wording: “more common” and “preferred.” The Owl is conceding that even in formal usage, that sometimes replaces who.

We language fussbudgets like to demonize “today’s vernacular,” but it won’t work in this case. Many authorities past and present would beg to differ with the Owl, and with our correspondent’s assertion that that for who is “very poor English.” The Chicago Manual of Style—the publishing industry’s bible—says, “That refers to a person, animal, or thing.” In the 1990s, author and literary critic Kingsley Amis wrote that he found the man that I spoke to preferable to the man whom I spoke to. In the eighties, English scholar John B. Bremner wrote “that may refer to persons,” with no mention of formal or informal. In the seventies, the renowned editor Theodore M. Bernstein wrote, “You may say either ‘the boy that lives next door’ or ‘the boy who lives next door.’ ” In the mid-sixties—half a century ago—an eleventh-grade textbook called Warriner’s English Grammar and Composition said, “That may be used to refer to either persons or things.”

Great essayists, novelists, and poets have been substituting that for who for centuries. A famous quotation from the Gospel of John begins: “He that is without sin among you …”

Many words have been used to describe the Bible, but it’s a safe bet that “informal” is not one of them.

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Posted on Thursday, September 11, 2014, at 4:15 pm

Media Watch

Let’s zero in once more on cringe-inducers culled from recent dailies and periodicals …

• Newspaper headline: “New look for a old test.”

One of the principles of English you would think we all learned in third grade is that the article a goes before consonants (a pen, a hat), and the article an goes before vowels and vowel sounds (an owl, an honor). But these days, items like that headline are rampant. Here’s a reporter writing of “a unusual twist in Senate process.” Here’s another, mentioning “an very unfortunately named document.” We’ve even heard the president of the United States say “a international effort.”

We can no longer dismiss such things as a slip of the tongue or a typo.

• Another rule we learned in grade school was, “Neither … nor, either  or, but never neither  or.” We thought everybody knew that one. But neither  or is gaining momentum among people who ought to know better, like the columnist who wrote: “In short, the technology, sports and political worlds seem to be saying that markets should neither be free or fair.”

Let’s change “or” to “nor,” and while we’re at it, put “be” before “neither” to make the sentence parallel: “ … saying that markets should be neither free nor fair.”

• A magazine reported that a twelve-year-old girl sold 18,107 boxes of Girl Scout cookies, calling it “an all-time record.” Delete “all-time.” All records are all-time records. Writers should also avoid new record—when a record is set, new is redundant.

• An article about a successful author offered this snarky advice: “Don’t publish anything ’til you’re fifty.” The writer of this profile should have written “till you’re fifty.” You won’t find a reference book anywhere that recommends ’til. In Words on Words, John B. Bremner declares brusquely, “Either till or until, but not ’til.” Some defend ’til as a contraction of until. However, till predates until by several centuries.

• Check out this sentence about an aggressive company: “The Comcast-run colossus may be able to dictate terms to individual cable channels and Hollywood studios who supply TV shows and movies.” Make it “that supply TV shows and movies.” Use who only when referring to humans. Businesses may be run by humans, but grammatically they are things. Avoid usages like a company who. Use that or which instead.

At least as far as grammar is concerned, there is no debate: corporations are not people.


Pop Quiz

The following are sentences recently heard over the airwaves. See if you can spot the errors.

1. “It was committed by two identical twin sisters.”

2. “What lengths did you go through in order to get this done?”

3. “This is bad news for we Americans.”

4. “There are also good places out there too.”

5. “It was different from the bill that they had wrote.”


Pop Quiz Answers

1. “It was committed by identical twin sisters.” (two twins is redundant)

2. “What lengths did you go to in order to get this done?”

3. “This is bad news for us Americans.”

4. “There are also good places out there.” (“also … too” is redundant)

5. “It was different from the bill that they had written.”

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Posted on Wednesday, April 23, 2014, at 1:59 pm

That vs. Which

Last week’s grammar tip focused on the rules for using who vs. that. This week, we will learn the rules to guide us on when to use that vs. which.

NOTE: We feel that maintaining the distinction between that and which in essential and nonessential phrases and clauses is useful, even though the principle is sometimes disregarded by experienced writers.

Rule 1: That may refer to people, animals, groups, or things. (As mentioned last week, who is preferred when referring to people.)

Rule 2: Which refers to animals, groups, or things.

Since that and which may each refer to animals, groups, or things, how do we know when to use that and when to use which?

Rule 3: That introduces essential clauses while which introduces nonessential clauses.

Example: I do not trust editorials that claim racial differences in intelligence.
We would not know which editorials were being discussed without the that clause.

Example: The editorial claiming racial differences in intelligence, which appeared in the Sunday newspaper, upset me.
The editorial is already identified. Therefore, which begins a nonessential clause.

NOTE: Essential clauses do not have commas surrounding them, while nonessential clauses are surrounded by commas.

Example: Chess is a game that requires intense concentration.
The second part of the sentence is essential for conveying the meaning of the sentence.

Rule 4: If this, that, these, or those has already introduced an essential clause, you may use which to introduce the next clause, whether it is essential or nonessential.

Example: Those responses to the questions, which were not well thought out, eliminated him from further job consideration.

Rule 5: Try not to use that twice in a row in a sentence.

Example: That is a problem that can’t be solved without a calculator.
This sentence would be better written as: That is a problem which can’t be solved without a calculator.
The best way to write the sentence would be: That problem can’t be solved without a calculator.

Example: That is a promise that cannot be broken.
Again, the above sentence could be rewritten as: That is a promise which cannot be broken.
The best way to rewrite it would be: That promise cannot be broken.

Rule 6: Whenever you have more than one that or which in a sentence, see if you can rewrite it in a way that removes at least one that or which.


Pop Quiz
Choose whether that or which is correct for each sentence. Then determine whether the sentence should contain commas. If so, place the commas in the correct location in the sentence.
1. Hannah is on the team that/which won the county softball championship.
2. The Fairview Hawks softball team that/which my daughter played on won the county softball championship.
3.  The Golden Gate Bridge that/which was completed in 1937 is considered by many to be the most beautiful bridge in the world.
4. The bridge that/which connects the city of San Francisco with Marin County was completed in 1937.
5. That rooster that/which crows every morning at dawn is going to drive me crazy.
6. That is a point that/which is worth considering.


Quiz Answers
1. Hannah is on the team that won the county softball championship.
2. The Fairview Hawks softball team, which my daughter played on, won the county softball championship.
3. The Golden Gate Bridge, which was completed in 1937, is considered by many to be the most beautiful bridge in the world.
4. The bridge that connects the city of San Francisco with Marin County was completed in 1937.
5. That rooster, which crows every morning at dawn, is going to drive me crazy.
6. That is a point which is worth considering. (“That is a point that is worth considering” is also acceptable, but the best answer is either “That point is worth considering.” OR “That is a point worth considering.”)

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Posted on Monday, October 29, 2012, at 2:58 pm