Saturday, August 05, 2006

which vs that

David in Dublin emailed about the relative pronouns which and that, saying:
In American English there seems to be a strong distinction, particularly among educated speakers/writers. I'm fairly sure this distinction doesn't exist in the dialect that I speak. However, as the American standard usage is a subset of the local standard usage, it seems that the American version is used by most writers addressing both audiences (say academic publications, software documentation, ...) because American readers will assume you to be uneducated if you misuse them!

I have tried to determine if I am really uneducated or if this is a real Am/Br distinction by looking up "which" and "that" in the OED. My reading of the ODE seems to support it being a distinction, but I may be deceiving myself!

You're right, David, non-American Englishes have mostly lost the distinction between which and that in restrictive relative clauses. But, as you've noticed, its persistence in American English is limited to certain types of people/discourses. The distinction is far more likely to be observed in writing, especially academic and copy-edited publications. I must admit that I have the distinction, even usually in speech, but it's something that (which!) I acquired as a doctoral student. If you have acquired the distinction, it can interfere with your ability to process writing that doesn't have the distinction--I'll explain why after explaining the distinction in a bit more detail.

A relative clause (RC) is a clause (i.e. a sentence within another sentence/phrase) that's used to modify a noun. Relative clauses usually start with a relative pronoun: that, which or who/whom (and sometimes some others that aren't relevant here). There are two types of relative clause. Restrictive RCs reduce the range of things that the modified noun refers to. So, in sentence (1), I use who lives upstairs to indicate that living upstairs is the property that distinguishes this man from other men I could have talked about.
(1) The man who lives upstairs has a new piano.
In contrast, non-restrictive RCs aren't used to identify who/what the noun refers to, but to give more information about the referent of the noun, as in (2). Notice that using a non-restrictive RC is a way to fit more information about one noun's referent into a single sentence.
(2) [pointing to man] That man, who lives upstairs, has a new piano.
(= That man has a new piano. He lives upstairs.)
As these examples show, who can introduce either type of clause. In speech we can tell the difference between them because restrictive and nonrestrictive RCs are spoken with different prosody (=speech melody, intonation). In writing, the non-restrictive type is correctly set off by commas.

In any English dialect, that can only introduce restrictive relative clauses. In other words, non-restrictive RCs must start with which or who/whom. So all English speakers have a distinction between which and that to that extent. BrE and most other Englishes don't have a strong distinction in the restrictive RC:
(* marks grammatical impossibilities, £ marks stylistic variation common in BrE.)

(3) That dress, which [*that] changed my life, is red.

(4) The dress that [£ which] changed my life is red.

Anyone who has used Microsoft Word's grammar checker will know that if you use a restrictive which, as in (4), it highlights it. That's because it seeks out which relative clauses without commas around them in order to query whether you should have commas. Since that depends on your meaning, the grammar checker has to ask you--it can't tell from the grammar. However, if you use that, it knows that your lack of commas was purposeful.

Although I learned the that/which distinction late, I have it very strongly now--probably because I've worked as a copy editor. I frequently misread relative clauses that have which where a that could be--thinking that they are non-restrictive, even though the comma rule for restrictive/non-restrictive RCs should prevent misreading. I then must go back to re-read and re-evaluate my interpretation when I reali{s/z}e that the non-restrictive interpretation doesn't make sense. This confusion almost always happens when I'm reading student writing, so it could be that I've learned to ignore punctuation since it's often fairly random. At any rate, I do appreciate it when people use the distinction in writing--and I do wonder why my BrE colleagues don't seem to have the same disambiguation problem when it comes to reading restrictive whiches.

When I first started reading student work in the UK, I was also struck by some students' apparent comfort in writing the man that lives upstairs, rather than the man who lives upstairs. It seemed like I was 'correcting' that far more often here than I had in the US. However, I've not seen anyone else note it as a dialectal distinction and I've noticed it less and less, so perhaps I just had some odd students my first year here.

What do the style authorities say about all this?

On restrictive that/which, the 3rd edition of Fowler's Modern Usage, a British guide (though the current editor is a New Zealander), quotes the 1926 edition in saying: "Some there are who follow this [distinguishing] principle now; but it would be idle to pretend tht it is the practice either of most or of the best writers."

Larry Trask (an American acting as an authority to a British audience!) in Mind the Gaffe doesn't mind whether or not you distinguish that/which in restrictive RCs.

For American audiences, the Modern Language Association Handbook (5th edn), the style book for many American academics, simply says, "Note that some writers prefer to use which to introduce nonrestrictive clauses and that to introduce restrictive clauses."

The Chicago Manual of Style (14th edn--my AmE books are a little out of date) warns that "Although the distinction is often disregarded in contemporary writing, the careful writer and editor should bear in mind that such indifference may result in misreading or uncertainty. [...] When the commas intended to set off a nonrestrictive clause are omitted, perhaps with the intention of using which restrictively, the reader may well ponder whether the omission was inadvertent" (exactly my problem).

All of the guides recommend that you use who instead of that when referring to people.

A last point to make is that the American prescriptivist preference for that in restrictive RCs is undone by the other prescriptivist rule that clauses shouldn't end in a preposition. If you want your preposition at the front of the RC with the relative pronoun, then that pronoun cannot be that:
(5) the building that/which I ran into
(6) the building into which I ran
(7) *the building into that I ran

The that/which distinction and the preservation of the subjunctive are two examples of (standard) American English being more conservative than (standard) British English. (I'll write about the subjunctive some other time.) I keep threatening to write a book on this topic called How the Americans Saved the English Language, an homage to the title How the Irish Saved Civilization.


m. s. c. thompson said...

Love your column! I really wish I had a proof reader of your caliber to ensure that my movie reviews meet the British English standards of proper grammar. If I fail my own country people in this language, I feel less disappointed. I find it incredibly difficult to proof my own work. Meanwhile, writing so much every single day and self-publishing is a challenge. Anyway, just wanted to let you know I appreciated your visit to today. Hope you continue to enjoy.



lynneguist said...

While you were leaving your comment, Scooter, I was re-posting the post for the umpteenth time after discovering yet another typo and yet another difficult-to-parse sentence. It's really hard to proof(-)read your own work and see the errors, but it's so easy to see them in other people's work.

I wouldn't worry about making your movie (BrE prefers film) reviews fit a British English standard. You're expressing yourself, and if you're American, that's how most people would want you to express yourself. (And believe me, BrE standards of proper grammar can be pretty lax!!)

KathyF said...

Thanks to my niece, who works for UC Press, I have the new Chicago Manual of Style.

Section 5.202 says:

That; which. These are both relative pronouns. In polished American prose, that is used restrictively to narrow a category or identify a particular item being talked about [any building that is taller must be outside the state]; which is used nonrestrictively—not to narrow a class or identify a particular item but to add something about an item already identified [alongside the officer trotted a toy poodle, which is hardly a typical police dog]. Which should be used restrictively only when it is preceded by a preposition [the situation in which we find ourselves]. Otherwise it is almost always preceded by a comma, a parenthesis, or a dash. In British English, writers and editors seldom observe the distinction between the two words.


You're right though, the only time I've ever seen anyone make a fuss over it was when my husband's doctoral adviser changed his whiches to thats. Or vice versa.

lynneguist said... Chicago has become MORE prescriptivist about which/that. Very interesting! Thanks for all that typing, Kathy!

I do wonder whether Microsoft Word has inadvertently raised consciousness of the distinction in American writing culture.

Americans seem to overtly care about prescriptivist rules more than some other cultures. Take, for example, the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary, which votes on which usages of words are acceptable in formal (particularly written) American English. It may be the closest thing English has to a national language academy, and it comes from the US, not the UK. Some take this to be a symptom of American "linguistic insecurity". That is, we're never sure if we're speaking English the "right" way, and look to outside authorities --the British, dictionaries, teachers-- to tell us.

KathyF said...

I think Americans in general are more fond of rules, or perhaps it's that they're less fond of gray/grey areas than the British.

My favorite example is "Keep Your Dog on a Lead" signs, which the British habitually ignore. I'd gone to Regent's Park several times before I got up the nerve to take the lead off my dog, despite the fact every other dog was running free.

lynneguist said...

There's probably something to that, Kathy, but British queu(e)ing ('waiting in line') behavio(u)r is one of the most adamantly rule-based things one can imagine.

The Ridger, FCD said...

This artificial rule is gaining ground in the US, unfortunately. I'm not going to type in a huge amoung of comment, but I will refer people who are interested in the subject to the Language Log (particularly this one by Geoff Pullum which has numbers!, and this rather long summary post by Arnold Zwicky

Eimear said...

I'm Irish, and I could easily imagine myself saying "That dress that changed my life" ... but there would be an implication of that I already told you about in there, e.g "and that dress that changed my life is still hanging in my wardrobe all these years later".

lynneguist said...

The implication of 'that I already told you about' comes from the determiner that (the first that), not the complementizer that (the one that could be a which. It's confusing to have an example with two thats in it!

John Cowan said...

The that/which distinction and the preservation of the subjunctive are two examples of (standard) American English being more conservative than (standard) British English.

Quite right about the subjunctive, quite wrong about the which/that distinction: it was invented out of whole cloth by a Brit (H.W. Fowler) and became popular in America through the efforts of writers on usage, who spread it to copy editors and editors, where it afflicts the remaining Americans who (quite properly) make no such distinction.

lynneguist said...

Depends on what you mean by 'conservative' in this context--and I admit I did a bit of messing around on that. Americans do like to have rules to follow, and so in this case you'd have to take 'conservative' to mean 'prescriptive', which, ok, isn't a good way to take it!

Bill Scott said...

The Guardian's style manual says this about that:

that defines, which informs:
this is the house that Jack built, but
this house, which Jack built, is now falling down;
the Guardian, which I read every day, is the paper that I admire above all others, but
the Guardian, which I admire above all others, is the paper that I read every day.

An American Guardian reader.

Ambarish said...

12 years ago, my school English teacher in India was quite picky about not using "which" in restrictive adjective clauses. And I wouldn't be surprised if Indian teachers continue to be particular about this point — English education in India is quite conservative.

Chris said...

Great column! Thanks a lot for clarifying that. I'm sure I'll notice it everywhere now...

Alexandria said...

Hi there! I just discovered your blog, and I'm working my way through every single entry. It is fascinating -- and should be required reading for any American moving to England. I don't know if you will see this comment as it is on such an old post, but I just had to say that, as an American working as a content and copy editor on a British website, I make a point to correct every instance of which that should be a that! My English colleague thinks I'm mad :-)

lynneguist said...

I do the same thing, Alexandria. You're not alone!

(And I do see the comments on old posts!)

Rachael said...

IMO using or omitting the commas is non-negotiable, but using "which" or "that" is a stylistic or dialectal choice.

The problem comes when people who don't really understand the difference between the two types of clause blindly follow MS Word's "corrections". You get sentences like "The article contained words which I found offensive" (fine in BrE, stylistically dubious in AmE) getting "corrected" to "The article contained words, which I found offensive" (nonsense in both dialects).

Anonymous said...

Charles E. Miller, Jr. BA, MA
At Old Dominion University in Norfolk,Virginia, I was taught that using "which vs "which" instead of "that" vs "which" was acceptable. I have always used it until I discovered the "that" vs "which" on a computer grammar check and contacted a Professor Ellis of Tidewater Community College who has a PhD in English. He agrees with the "that" vs "which." I suppose I shall change my habits.
Charles Miller, Former Officer, Bank of America

Anonymous said...

I once tried to read a book on language by linguist David Crystal, but had to give up after about 50 pages. This "expert" consistently used "which" instead of "that" in restrictive clauses and I found myself needing to circle each occurrence in pencil as I read! I lost the meaning of his writing because of this "which-hunt"!

David Crosbie said...


This "expert" consistently used "which" instead of "that" in restrictive clauses

I imagine that all British experts use which in both sorts of relative clauses. I don't think I'm alone in finding the American shibboleth bizarre and incomprehensible. I can believe that it used to be proscribed in British English, but I find it very hard to believe that the prescription was followed to any extent.

I think this is one of those rues dreamed up by tidy-minded people who can't bear asymmetry. It's perfectly true that that is not standard in nonrestrictive clauses. But that's no reason to assume the corollary: that which not standard in restrictive clauses. It's like the rule that insists on the corollary of the rule that fewer is not standard with uncountable nouns. The symmetrical assertion is that less is not standard with countable nouns.

In Britain more people pay lip-service to the fewer only + COUNTABLE prescription than to the that only + RESTRICTIVE prescription. But that only means that we apologise when we say less people. (Well, I don't apologise, but some do.) We don't apologise she we say the dress which changed my life — probably because few people alive have even heard of the prescription.

Or was your posting just a joke?