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