Thursday, 6 August 2009

that which

A journey into usage today.

There's a new Twitter feed called thatwhichmatter, whose goal is "To honor the that/which distinction, and all grammar that which matters."

The that/which distinction, as given by usage writers like Strunk & White and Fowler, goes like this:
"Use that to introduce restrictive relative clauses, and use which to introduce nonrestrictive relative clauses."

A restrictive relative clause is one that adds essential information, as in this example from The Elements of Style:

1) The lawn mower that is broken is in the garage.

There is more than one lawn mower; the relative clause that is broken is essential because it tells us which one.

A nonrestrictive clause is one that adds nonessential information:

2) The lawn mower, which is broken, is in the garage.

There is only one lawn mower, and the clause which is broken adds additional but nonessential information.

Strunk and White go so far as to advocate "which-hunting", and replacing all restrictive whiches with thats:

Careful writers, watchful for small conveniences, go which-hunting, remove the defining [restrictive] whiches, and by so doing improve their work.

The problem is that altho careful writers might do that, good writers don't. Even E. B. White himself didn't:

...the premature expiration of a pig is, I soon discovered, a departure which the community marks solemnly on its calendar - E. B. White, "Death of a Pig"

The reality is that which introduces restrictive relative clauses and has been introducing restrictive relative clauses for as long as it's been a relative pronoun (the 14th century). It isn't which that signals a nonrestrictive relative clause, it's the commas.

Here are a few more examples of which introducing restrictive relative clauses, from good writers who knew what they were doing:

It was a concern which brought just employment enough. (Jane Austen, Emma, chapter 2)

However, she soon made out that she was in the pool of tears which she had wept when she was nine feet high. (Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, chapter 2)

He lived in chambers which had once belonged to his deceased partner. (Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, Stave 1)

Buda-Pesth seems a wonderful place, from the glimpse which I got of it from the train and the little I could walk through the streets. (Bram Stoker, Dracula, chapter 1)

I think I can see a little into the springs and motives which being cunningly presented to me under various disguises (Herman Melville, Moby Dick, chapter 1)

...and Mrs. Heathcliff leaning over the fire, diverting herself with burning a bundle of matches which had fallen from the chimney-piece as she restored the tea-canister to its place (Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights, chapter 2)

Given the choice between writing like Strunk and White's imaginary careful writer and good writers like Carroll and Austen, I know who I'd choose.

Trying to follow Strunk and White's that/which distinction can cause all kinds of unintended consequences, as explained by Zwicky on the Log.

So to quote Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage:

You can use either which or that to introduce a restrictive clause - the grounds for your choice should be stylistic - and which to introduce a nonrestrictive clause.

9 comments :

Michael Leddy said...

As is so often the case though, Strunk and White don't lay down an absolute rule:

"The use of which for that is common in written and spoken language ('Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass.'). Occasionally which seems preferable to that, as in the sentence from the Bible."

I'm not sure why which is better in the sentence quoted, but it's clear that Strunk and White acknowledge that which can substitute for and is sometimes preferable to that. But yes, they do prefer making a routine distinction between the words.

goofy said...

You're right that it's not an absolute rule, altho it's often treated as an absolute rule by others. But what exactly is it? The very next sentences are:

"But it would be a convenience to all if these two pronouns were used with precision. Careful writers, watchful for small conveniences, go which-hunting, remove the defining whiches, and by so doing improve their work."

So it's a strong suggestion? But it's unclear: if "which" seems preferable to "that" sometimes, why do we need to remove all restrictive whiches? And what is the "precision" they're talking about? This is what bothers me most about Strunk and White: they don't provide any reasoning or evidence for their claims.

Michael Leddy said...

Sometimes they provide reasoning: the side-by-side contrasts are often persuasive.

I'd see Strunk and White here as offering general advice to distinguish between two words. But as they say elsewhere, choices in writing are "somewhat a matter of individual preference." There's no "lawgiver," as they say. And "The question of ear is vital."

General advice can be pretty helpful. I tell my students, for instance, to put a comma after an introductory element in a sentence. Can a writer do otherwise and be fine? Sure. But at some point in a writer's development, general advice to put in the comma is helpful. It simplifies one matter of punctuation. As students get better at writing, they can begin to figure out when to let such general advice go by.

I have my own dissatisfactions with Strunk and White (as you might guess, I've been following and contributing to the recent discussions of the book). I think it's important to recognize that the "rules" involve a significant element of flexibility and case-by-case decision-making.

Thanks for another chance to think about The Elements of Style.

goofy said...

I have nothing against usage advice. What I object to is uninformed advice. A lot of the advice on this particular issue is uninformed. I'm picking on Strunk and White because they are the easiest example of the that/which rule to hand. I'm sure there are other stricter, clearer formulations of the that/which rule.

The thing about the side-by-side contrasts is that it's easy to contrive example sentences that show certain constructions in a bad light. I'm more convinced by real examples by real writers. MWDEU has examples of supposedly wordy or redundant constructions used to good effect.

Michael Leddy said...

"It's easy to contrive example sentences that show certain constructions in a bad light." Yes, it is, and I know that Geoffrey Pullum makes that argument re: Strunk and White. But many teachers of college English would attest that the left-hand samples in The Elements of Style are remarkably true to life.

rog peppe said...

you wrote:
"Here are a few more examples of which introducing nonrestrictive relative clauses, from good writers who knew what they were doing:"

I presume you actually mean "restrictive" here, or I've understood less than I think.

goofy said...

rog: You're right.

Michael: That's a fair point. The book was originally intended to help students with essays. Nowadays it's marketed to all writers, even tho the content hasn't been significantly changed, but I don't think that's the authors' faults.

Adrian said...

I subscribe to thatwhichmatter, and though they're wrong about the that/which distinction, their service is one of the more useful available on Twitter.

Montag said...

"The lawn mower, which is broken..."
and
"The lawn mower that is broken..."
may both be expressed as
"The broken lawnmower is in the garage."
I like to concentrate on the third formulation and sense how it flip-flops back and forth in and out of restrictive usage.

A good deal depends on whether I am talking in a hurry, or to the lawn mower repair man, or to a nosy neighbor, or trying to express exasperated sarcasm about the lawn mower manufacturer.
What about "The lawn mower, which is broken again, is in the garage.", with great sarcastic emphasis on "again"? I could recast it as a "that" clause, but the use of "which" seems to slow it down and make the sarcastic denunciation of poor manufacture even more intense.

It is indeed a matter of style.

(Biblical style of relatives takes us even further afield into how sacred texts are translated and the underlying grammar of the original languages.)