English Usage & Grammar Notes

May 28, 2006

Which or That

Filed under: Uncategorized — hkeol @ 2:12 am

Is there any rule regarding the use of 'which' vs 'that'?

The answer is yes, but it is not set in stone. There are some exceptions, of
course.

The rule(s):

We use 'that' for restrictive clauses, and 'which' for nonrestrictive ones.
In other words, if a sentence cannot be understood without a given clause,
use that, and if it can be understood just fine, thus without the clause,
use which:

Examples:

Martha broke the vase that I just gave her. (You don't know which vase
without the that- clause.)
Marha  broke her vase, which I just gave her. (The first part of the
sentence could stand alone, but you add the second part because you're angry
about it.)
However, as I just said, the rule about nonrestrictive clauses isn't really
that strictly imposed upon us, mortals.
The mix-ups start because which and that are both relative pronouns – words
that stand for a noun, and relate information in a clause back to the
subject of a sentence. Of these pronouns (that, which, what, who, whom, and
whose), that is the oldest (early Middle English), and it used to be used in
any context, restrictive or nonrestrictive. After which entered the language
(14th century), it was used pretty much interchangeably with that, and both
were used instead of who as well – think of all the "He thats" and the "Our
father, which art in heaven" of the King James Bible (1611).
In modern English (beginning of the 20th century)  the restrictive-only use
of that was fixed. Which, however, does get used for restrictive clauses as
well, more often in Britain than in the U.S. For instance, the U.S
lexicographers I worked with in Boston would define a leaflet for a
learner's dictionary as 'a piece of paper which gives information about
something', rather than using '…that gives information.'
The choice of which or that in restrictive clauses is more a matter of
style –what you think is clearer, what sounds more dulcet. Sometimes,
however, the choice is pretty darned obvious: The line "That which does
not kill me makes me stronger" would be ludicrous as "That that."

Note:
Set in stone/Carved in stone: unchangeable; fixed.

HKEOL
Learning and Publication Center

Kowloon – Hong Kong

dwjo@netvigator.com

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1 Comment »

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