Grammar That and Which: Rule or Guideline? |
The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

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

If the article or the existing discussions do not address a thought or question you have on the subject, please use the "Comment" box at the bottom of this page.

24 responses to “That and Which: Rule or Guideline?”

  1. C.L. Campbell says:

    Thank you for the superb discussion of Fowler’s rule, and the compelling argument against it. You discussed the use of the restrictive which. What about the use of the nonrestrictive that? Is it acceptable (despite what Fowler said)?

    • A nonrestrictive that does not work in English. It’s just not something a reasonably articulate native speaker would say. Remember, just because there is a comma preceding it does not necessarily make it nonrestrictive.

  2. Steve says:

    “Joe ordered eggs and toast; that, he always enjoyed.”
    Would this be an acceptable way of using “that” (instead of “which”) in the sentence you used?


  3. Peter Brodie says:

    The New Yorker accepts as gospel “the irregular restrictive which” preached by William Shawn and Eleanor Gould. And certainly most enchiridions insist on that as the regular restrictive relative pronoun—-“which” being used for nonrestrictive clauses, after a comma. But on what principle, to what end, and on what authority (other than a prescriptivist’s say-so)?
    And only in America: in England you often find the restrictive which. Take George Orwell’s representative essay “Politics and the English Language”: by my count it sports 43 restrictive relative pronouns, 26 of them “which” and 17 “that.” Some of his choices are perhaps dictated by euphony; but he is clearly untrammeled by an arbitrary or pointless Rule.
    I also consulted two doyens of Linguistics—the American Steven Pinker and the Brit(on) David Crystal-—opening their books at random. On pp. 136-137 of Words and Rules, Pinker has 4 restrictive that’s and no which; on pp. 478-479 of The Stories of English, Crystal has 6 restrictive which’s and no that.
    So the Rule governing which/that, it seems, is merely/largely a matter of local custom. Some such customs (When in England, Drive on the Left, e.g.) may be good for your health; but to insist on the hard-and-fastness of a Grammar Rule (none of which seem/seems to be useful or true) looks like dogmatism, if not hubris. Even Strunk & White’s hallowed The Elements of Style—-which the noted linguist Geoffrey Pullum has called a “toxic little compendium of bad grammatical advice”—owes much to Brahmin whimsy.
    Yet so strong is the urge to pontificate and censure that we invent bizarre and crippling canards and shibboleths—-Don’t begin a sentence with And or But or Because; Don’t Allow the Subject and Verb to Disagree; No Split Infinitives, Fragments, or Passives, etc.—-to snare the uninitiated and try them as miscreants in the bogus Court of Correctitude.

    • Damon says:

      Peter, your response to this article was one of the most enjoyable snippets of English I’ve had the pleasure of reading. I especially liked your deliberate interchanging of grammatical ‘rules’ to further illustrate your point. I’m sure that most people would assume that the words ‘merely’ and ‘largely’ have almost opposite meanings but would mix the two terms regularly without a moment’s hesitation (or should it be a hesitation’s moment?).

      Thanks for the delightful read!

  4. Kathrin W. says:

    Meningitis is NOT spelled meningitas, as you have it: a glitch THAT you didn’t pick up!

    • Please note that the sentence at the end of the first paragraph is in quotation marks. The misspelling of “meningitis” is a reference to our weekly e-newsletter of February 24, 2015, entitled “Spell Check.”

  5. Earl M. says:

    Concerning the e-mail I received today, it just don’t make no whole, great big lotta’ never mind to me whether “that” or “which” is used. I did find the spelling of “meningitis” at the end of the first paragraph a bit odd, though.

    • As we noted in our response to Kathrin W. above, the sentence at the end of the first paragraph is in quotation marks. The misspelling of “meningitis” is a reference to our weekly e-newsletter of February 24, 2015, titled “Spell Check.”

  6. Bill P. says:

    I agree with your correspondents, because all the writing guides that I’ve researched over the years have indicated the approach they espouse. However, as I read Bible passages, I find that which is used in most cases.

    • It’s likely that your “writing guides” are secondary sources that got the rule straight from Fowler. As noted by Professor Pullum at the end of the article, go ahead and follow Fowler if you prefer; it’s up to you. Just don’t try to claim it’s anything more than a good suggestion. (We do feel it’s a useful principle, as we note in the Free Bonus Quiz box.)

  7. Larry B. says:

    I use “The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation” by Jane Straus in my daily life and in my classroom. I enjoy the newsletter and frequently share it with my students. The recent newsletter on “That and Which:” was nothing short of a rant. It was a serious departure from what I have enjoyed about your newsletter. It does fall short of what I believe to be the excellent help that is associated with Jane Straus’s work.

    Please go back to look at her work, offered to the regular person. Some history is nice but to drench us in so much rhetoric felt like I was reading one side of an argument rather than being coached on grammar.

    If the tone of this newsletter continues like this, I would seriously consider unsubscribing.

    • We felt this matter merited a response, since the that and which question has concerned (and often confounded) students of English for decades. It’s frankly hard for us to understand how the history of this debate could seem like a rant, especially considering the credentials and gravitas of the scholars we quoted. We wonder whether you have interpreted this article as an indication that we are angry or upset with our correspondents. We want you to know that is not at all the case, and that we are grateful to those who write in as it gives us ideas for new articles. We publish 50 articles a year. Not all of them will be of equal interest to discerning readers. We, and Jane Straus herself before us, have pretty much covered the basic grammar and punctuation ground. We are now trying to cover this ground in a way that stimulates our readers and, yes, may sometimes cause some controversy.

      As for your students, the takeaway for them might be to discuss what constitutes a rule, as opposed to guidelines, policies, or conventions. Can one man (e.g., Fowler) actually devise a language rule that everyone else must follow?

      Maybe you’ll like the next article more. We hope so. We appreciate your comment.

  8. Catherine Y. says:

    “…that inflamation…” Why even use “that” in this part of the sentence. I think “that” is overused.

  9. Tricia says:

    I enjoy reading and sharing your grammar tips and insights with my colleagues. My solution to your sentence would be simply to omit the second ‘that’ so it reads, “The other errant site offered a quiz that claimed ‘inflammation of the membrane of the brain’ is spelled ‘meningitas.’ ”. Personally I find ‘that’ is used far too often when it is actually redundant. Thanks

  10. Leslie says:

    The sentence would be tidier, and avoid the which/that debate, if written as follows: “The other errant site offered a quiz that claimed ‘inflammation of the membrane of the brain’ is spelled ‘meningitas.’ ” Would that not be correct?

    Leslie the amateur grammarian

  11. Jack Kelly says:

    Whenever I have a grammar or punctuation problem that needs resolving I look to “The Chicago Manual of Style” (sixteenth edition). 6.22″Although which can be substituted for that in a restrictive clause ( a common practice in British English), many writers preserve the distinction between restrictive (with no commas) and nonrestrictive (with commas).”

  12. Nick H. says:

    I am glad that your page on that/which recognises the restrictive use of which in the phrase ‘that which’; but it does not mention that the book to which I referred/of which I spoke/by which he was known/whose cover, etc, are also restrictive clauses in which that is unacceptable.

    To my mind, an analysis which is a better description of current good usage would be as follows;

    1. Non restrictive clauses are identified by commas, and always use who/whom/whose/which rather than that,

    2. Restrictive clauses have no commas and can be either who/whom/which or that.
    (a) Which/whom is essential if preceded by a preposition (to which, of whom, etc)
    (b) Which is preferred if there is an an adjacent demonstrative that, e,g, I like that which I see.
    (c) Other cases can be judged by euphony.
    If would be foolish to say that ‘The stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner’ would be improved by changing which to that, and worse to say that English grammar requires it, as some writers who ought to know better have asserted.

  13. lyn says:

    I have confused with relative clause.
    “The boat that my cousins sailed in it was hit by a bomb.”
    Above sentence , i think “it” is deducted from sentence.
    I’ld like to know “that” is deduct or not ?

    • The word it should be removed from the sentence. The word that is optional.
      “The boat that my cousins sailed in was hit by a bomb.” OR
      “The boat my cousins sailed in was hit by a bomb.”

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