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.

 

5 Comments

  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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  2. Really interesting, and it shows the difficulties here. A couple of comments: firstly, while I agree that the changes made by the editor to the railways sentence didn’t help in any way, I think there is actually some ambiguity as to which railways are being referred to. Your interpretation is that only a subset of the current Indian railway network aided migration. It’s not clear from the passage alone if and when the migration stopped, but your interpretation is that it stopped once India became independent. However, the fact that the passage says that the migration ‘has been greatly facilitated’ (i.e. using present perfect) strongly implies that this phenomenon continues to the present, meaning that your interpretation must be faulty. If I’m right about that, the only way that the passage could actually be referring only to a subset of the Indian railways is if the migration continued after independence, but did not make use of any post-independence extensions to the rail network, which is of course highly implausible. So I actually think it should be a non-defining clause, and would edit it as follows:

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

    You rule out a non-defining interpretation because of your test, and this brings me to my second point, which is that you’re misusing the test. The idea of removing the relative clause to see if the sentence still ‘makes sense’ without it is over-simplistic – the question is whether removing it means that the antecedent is no longer sufficiently clear to be understood. A defining relative clause restricts the scope of its antecedent, so by removing the relative clause, the meaning of the antecedent will change. The consequence is that the whole sentence will become unclear, but that’s basically secondary. Looking, as you do, at the referent of a subsequent personal pronoun, as you do with the ‘they’ in ‘how they changed India’, has nothing to do with the function of the relative clause. It’s quite possible to come up with a sentence with a non-defining relative clause and then remove it so the whole sentence no longer makes sense for this kind of reason. That doesn’t mean it’s not a non-defining relative clause. A simple example would be:

    “I’m going to visit my (only) brother, who lives in New York, because I know this city is an exciting place.”

    Here we clearly have a non-defining relative clause (I only have one brother). If I remove the relative clause, I end up with this:

    “I’m going to visit my (only) brother, because I know this city is an exciting place.”

    The scope of the antecedent (‘my brother’) is unaffected, so we know it’s a non-defining clause, but the sentence as a whole doesn’t make sense.

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    1. “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 THAT were developed by the British, a classic example of how they changed India for the good but still made the ‘natives’ feel inferior.”

      The example you provide is a good illustration of why WHICH should be preferred to THAT as a relative pronoun in defining clauses. THAT already does too much work as a multi-functional conjunction, as in the first two instances above, and as a demonstrative pronoun. If we use THAT as a relative pronoun, we are likely to have it popping up in almost every sentence we write.

      I also believe that WHICH has a more formal register. Yes, it’s true that I am a speaker of British English, but please consider the following four ways of expressing the same statement:

      That is the town I grew up in
      That is the town that I grew up in
      That is the town which I grew up in
      That is the town in which I grew up

      Apart from avoiding the repetition of THAT as demonstrative and relative pronoun, surely there is a clear progression here from the less formal, spoken style, to the more formal, written style.

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      1. Thanks for reading the blog and for your comments. I agree that in certain contexts using thatas the relative leads to a pile-up of that’s and could offend the ear. Your hierarchy of formality is very pertinent, too. As a British English speaker/writer, I go with whichever comes out naturally, unless I am editing something by a U.S. writer, in which case that is almost obligatory.

        I hope you enjoy other blog posts, too.

        Kind regards, J.

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