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Re^3: poll ideas quest 2015

by jdporter (Canon)
on May 17, 2015 at 05:00 UTC ( #1126877=note: print w/replies, xml ) Need Help??


in reply to Re^2: poll ideas quest 2015
in thread poll ideas quest 2015

The which/that issue is one on which I strongly disagree with the style guide writers. The Guardian's style guide, espousing the majority view, says:

This is quite easy, really: "that" defines, "which" gives extra information (often in a clause enclosed by commas)

This is literally bass-ackwards. It is the comma -- and the comma alone -- which determines whether the clause is restrictive or nonrestrictive. Furthermore, when the clause is nonrestrictive (i.e. it is set off with commas), only "which" is correct. In restrictive clauses, either can be used, and most people seem to prefer "that"; but I maintain that "which" is often a better choice, at least in formal writing.

I have logic on my side. "Which" is close grammatical kin to "who", "where", "when", and so on. When using these other words, it's obvious that only commas make the difference between restrictive and nonrestrictive sense. Also, "which" can be used in prepositional phrases just as "whom" (etc.) can, but "that" cannot. So even granting that one should use "that" for a restrictive clause, one still must switch to using "which" when it follows a preposition. Example: "Websites that get hacked..." but "Websites for which no security..." "That" is a completely unnecessary word. We're better off just using "which" in all cases.

There is plenty of precedent to support my view.

  • Abraham Lincoln -- generally considered to be a pretty literate guy -- was quite consistent in the usage I promote.
  • The authors of the U.S. Constitution had no qualms about using "which" for restrictive clauses: "This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof..." and at least five other instances, not counting those where the clause is prepositional. (To be fair, there is also one instance of using "that" for a restrictive clause in the Constitution).
  • Similarly, George Washington, in his First Inaugural Address, uses "which" 17 times, "that" twice.
  • In the first two Federalist Papers, "which" is used eleven times, and "that" is never used.
  • In the Declaration of Independence, "which" is used six times, "that" never.
  • William Jennings Bryan, in his famous Cross of Gold speech, uses "which" 14 times, "that" once.
  • Taft, in his Inaugural Address, uses "which" 28 times, "that" 8 times.
  • Winston Churchill, in his Their Finest Hour speech, uses "which" 20 times, "that" twice.

(To reiterate: I'm only counting non-prepositional restrictive clauses, i.e. those places where "that" could reasonably substitute for "which".)

It's one thing to suggest that using "which" for restrictive clauses may lead to language so overly formal that it sounds odd to modern speakers; it's quite another to insist that the use of "which" for restrictive clauses is wrong and must be stamped out.

I reckon we are the only monastery ever to have a dungeon stuffed with 16,000 zombies.

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Re^4: poll ideas quest 2015 (which-hunt)
by Athanasius (Bishop) on May 17, 2015 at 06:42 UTC

      Ah, good article. It makes all the same points as I, yet it still insists on drawing the opposite (i.e. wrong) conclusion! Here's another good article with comments. I generally agree with the contrarian commenter "Warsaw Will".

      Here's my big peeve: People have gotten so accustomed to using "that" for restrictive clauses... that it's now, unfortunately, increasingly common to see people using "that" with non-restrictive clauses! E.g.:

      The perl mongers meetings, that tend to run long, ...

      Even worse -- far worse -- is the disgraceful tendency to go one step further and use a form of "that" when the sense is possessive, i.e.

      The perl mongers meetings, that's attendance is on the decline, ...

      Gag me.

      And this is why I believe it is sound advice to recommend that writers entirely avoid using "that" for relative clauses, at least as a default. I would prescribe the rule of thumb thusly:

      • Would you have to use "which" if the clause were prepositional? (e.g. "those with which") If so, then use "which" even if it's not prepositional.
      • Would a word like "who/whom", "when", or "where" fit in the place (disregarding the semantic impropriety)? If so, then use "which", not "that".

      The argument about commas, and whether the use of "which" sans commas could lead to a question in the reader's mind as to whether commas were intended but inadvertently omitted, is a straw man. We have no such issues when dealing with "who/whom", "when", "where"; therefore, so no such issue should be imagined with "which".

      Incidentally, the term "which hunt" certainly has art prior to Rachael's 2006 blog comment. My copy of The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White, (dated 1979) says:

      The careful writer goes which-hunting, removes the defining [i.e. restrictive] whiches, and by so doing improves his work.
      But that's a steaming pile of whatsit.

      I reckon we are the only monastery ever to have a dungeon stuffed with 16,000 zombies.

        And to belabor the point further:

          When would -- ? At times when -- Whenever --
          Where could -- ? In places where -- Wherever --
          Who should -- ? People who -- Whoever --
          Which might -- ?         Those that -- [ugly thing]         ? [no such thing]        

        Clearly, the only cure is more cowbell, in the form of the following:

          Which might -- ? Those which -- Whichever --

        And to be quite clear, those last two forms are restrictive, not non-restrictive.

        I reckon we are the only monastery ever to have a dungeon stuffed with 16,000 zombies.
Re^4: poll ideas quest 2015
by karlgoethebier (Monsignor) on May 17, 2015 at 19:05 UTC

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