Jeremy Butterfield

Making words work for you

“that” or “which”? Using “which” in restrictive or defining relative clauses (1/∞)

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Can you use which in defining (or restrictive) relative clauses?

For example…

“In 1957 work began, under the editorship of R. W. Burchfield, on the new supplement, superseding that of 1933, and treating all the vocabulary which came into use while the main dictionary was being published or after its completion.”
(From The Oxford Companion to English Literature [2000], referring to A Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary)

In a nutshell, if you’re in the U.S., no (almost certainly); if you’re in the UK, yes, you can, as in the example shown, but many people think you can’t.

“Change nothing in your editing that you do not know to be essential or believe to be beautiful.”

I’ve got a bee in my bonnet. It’s buzzing around in a mad sort of OCD way, and I can’t swat the varmint, try as I might. The apian interloper in my titfer is this: I think changes should only be made to a piece of writing if they are either essential from a strictly grammatical (e.g. verb concord) or meaning point of view, or stylistically desirable. To adapt William Morris’s famous phrase, “Change nothing in your editing that you do not know to be essential or believe to be beautiful.”

I’ll pass over the stylistics here, but one facet of what I mean by “essential” is that truly ambiguous wordings or structures have to be changed. However, such cases are rare; the example with which at the start of this blog is not, to my mind, one of them.

I presume the mother, if American, will confiscate the present, and only give it back when the child replaces “which” with “that”.

Is this change necessary?

I do a lot of editing, and I also review other editors’ edits of articles for academic journals.

One of my oft-repeated comments directed at certain editors is “Is this change necessary?” On a similar tack, I recently copy-edited about half [don’t ask] of a book by a writer and journalist who has already had several books published and writes with flair and distinction. They [Isn’t it handy when “singular they” conceals gender!] then wanted me to review the proofs, which the publisher had had proofread.

Excellently proofread they were, too, complete with a useful, comprehensive list from the proofreader, which explained their decision on style issues such as the treatment of names and titles.

One of the notes, however, read “I have changed a few instances of ‘which’ to ‘that’ were perceived to be a relative clause.” This was a red rag to my bull.  I happened to notice one such change, as follows:

“That the phrase ‘native place’ is still used, however, shows that many Indians are migrants, albeit internal migrants. Such migration, ironically, has been greatly facilitated by the railways which were developed by the British,  a classic example of how they changed India for the good but still made the ‘natives’ feel inferior.”

That word which [my emboldening] had changed to that in the proofs. The book was being published by a British publisher: the change was, therefore, by my lights, totally unnecessary. What is more, it changed the words which/that had come naturally to the author and so, one could argue, changes their “voice”.

(From now on, I will use which/that to highlight restrictive or defining clauses.)

Back to basics: restrictive and non-restrictive relative clauses

Let’s look at the example just mentioned. “Such migration, ironically, has been greatly facilitated by the railways which were developed by the British, …”

Now, which Indian railways are we talking about here? Why, only the ones the British developed before their departure in 1947. The specification is important, because, since then, the Indian government has massively expanded the rail network. So, what the clause “which were developed” is doing is to restrict the extension (in its logical meaning) of “railways”, or to define the kind of railways in question. That is why such clauses are called restrictive clauses or defining clauses.

Now let’s return to the example which/that heads this blog.

“In 1957 work began, under the editorship of R. W. Burchfield, on the new supplement, superseding that of 1933, and treating all the vocabulary which came into use while the main dictionary was being published or after its completion.”

“Vocabulary” here is being restricted to or defined as that which came into use during the long period it took for the original OED to be published (1884–1928), or thereafter. In other words, what is excluded by the defining clause is words that were already in the language before 1884.

How to identify restrictive or defining clauses

One way to identify defining or restrictive clauses which/that is often mentioned is to ask whether removing them changes the meaning of the sentence, or makes it nonsensical. Applying that test to our two example sentences gives:

“Such migration, ironically, has been greatly facilitated by the railways which were developed by the British, a classic example of how they changed India for the good but still made the ‘natives’ feel inferior.”

This is clearly a nonsense, since the subject of “they changed” now becomes the railways.

The other example still makes sense with the clause removed, but the meaning has changed drastically to include all the vocabulary of English.

“In 1957 work began, under the editorship of R. W. Burchfield, on the new supplement, superseding that of 1933, and treating all the vocabulary which came into use while the main dictionary was being published or after its completion.”

So, what are non-restrictive or non-defining clauses?

As the Collins Cobuild Grammar helpfully explains them, they “give further information which is not needed to identify the person, thing, or group you are talking about.”

(Note, incidentally, the use of which in the above restrictive/defining relative clause. The Grammar was produced at Birmingham University, and whoever wrote that section will have been a British English speaker. The use of which was natural to them.)

The Grammar then continues: “If you say ‘I saw Kylie Minogue’, it is clear who you mean. But you might want to add more information … , for example, ‘I saw Kylie Minogue, who was staying at the hotel opposite’. In this sentence, ‘who was staying at the hotel opposite’ is a non-defining relative clause.” Note that the comma here is obligatory to separate such a clause from what precedes.

If you’ve ploughed/plowed through this, you might need cheering up, so I throw in this picture of KM gratis, free and for nothing.

The gold hotpants which/that caused quite a stir when Kylie first exhibited herself in them.

 

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Author: Jeremy Butterfield

Editor of Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Writer, wordsmith, copywriter, copy-editor and lover of words. I provide editing, web copywriting, and marketing copywriting services in the Central Belt of Scotland, including Stirling, Glasgow, Edinburgh and surrounding areas, as well as throughout the UK. You can find me on Twitter @JezzB2.

2 thoughts on ““that” or “which”? Using “which” in restrictive or defining relative clauses (1/∞)

  1. In the British railway example, could the publisher’s proofreader have seen an ambiguity in the referent of ‘they’; who changed India for the good: the British or the British railways? If so, perhaps the switch from ‘which’ to ‘that’ was an attempt to fix the problem by marking the relative clause as restrictive.

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