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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.

In reply to Re^3: poll ideas quest 2015 by jdporter
in thread poll ideas quest 2015 by pollsters

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