Jeremy Butterfield

Making words work for you

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



A young scholar struggling with the “which/that” distinction.

There are one or two loose ends to tie up from the previous blog on this topic, before I move on.

1.1 which or that in defining clauses: with indefinite pronouns

First, it may be helpful in distinguishing restrictive or defining relative clauses from non-restrictive/non-defining ones to note the following: they often associate with specific words or kinds of words such as something/nothing/anything/everything whose very meaning suggests that any relative clause following them has to be defining, since those words themselves are indefinite (actually, “indefinite pronouns”).

a) Elevating the usually ordinary exercise of changing level to such a dramatic experience is something that Libeskind [sc. the famous architect] relishes.
Architecture Week, 2004.

b) The public showing of something which is so private and particular is immediately startling.
Art Throb, 2004.

c) Punctuation serves a valuable purpose – it helps to convey meaning more precisely and anything which erodes the precision of the English language is to be deplored.
Telegraph, 2014.

d) For Samsung, anything that could help it look better in the eyes of U.S. Federal Court Judges is probably a good move, although in this case it may not help much.
The Mac Observer, 2014

While which can be used after these words, as illustrated, it is very much a minority trend: in the case of something that/which, for example, a little less than 10 per cent of all cases.

1.2 with determiners and predeterminers

Another class of words often associating with defining relative clauses is “determiners” and “predeterminers” such as some, any, many, most, several, other, all, both, each, every, little, few, etc., e.g:

e) Icelandic law prevents the importing of new strains to prevent disease: any horse which leaves Iceland can never return. Open Country. BBC, Radio 4.

f) But there are some things that all can understandGuardian Unlimited, 2004

g) There is no herbicide that controls all plants. UNL Neb Guides, 2002.

Most of these examples show that/which as the subject of its clause. Where it is the object, as in a) and f), it could just as easily have been left out altogether, as often happens in speech, e.g.,

f) But there are some things that all can understand.

Clauses of the type, …all can understand…, from which the relative pronoun is dropped, are what is known in grammar as  “contact clauses” and are very common in spoken language.

2 non-defining or non-restrictive clauses

As mentioned in the earlier blog, the information they contain can be omitted. Putting it another way, they are almost like an aside. That is why such clauses are conventionally and correctly enclosed in commas if they come in the middle of a sentence, or are preceded by a comma if they are the last clause in a sentence. Fowler (1926)  noted that a non-defining clause “gives a reason…or adds a new fact.”

The example given in the earlier blog was “I saw Kylie Minogue, who was staying at the hotel opposite.” Even if such clauses are omitted, the sentence will still make sense (though it will, obviously, convey less information): “I saw Kylie Minogue” makes perfect sense.

In that earlier blog, there were adjoining sentences, each with a non-defining clause: “They 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.”

Without those non-defining clauses, each sentence still works: “They then wanted me to review the proofs. Excellently proofread they were, too, complete with a useful, comprehensive list from the proofreader.” As Fowler, noted, the clauses add “a new fact”.

3 the rule – who enforces it?

To claim that “It is a rule that ‘that’ must be used to introduce a defining relative clause’” draws attention to the ambiguity, or at least polysemy, of the word “rule”. The Oxford Online Dictionary defines two relevant senses:

  1. One of a set of explicit or understood regulations or principles governing conduct or procedure within a particular area of activity.
    ‘the rules of cricket’
    1.1 A principle that operates within a particular sphere of knowledge, describing or prescribing what is possible or allowable. [my underlining]
    ‘the rules of grammar’

The “rule” that that has to be used clearly falls largely under definition 1 above.

It is a “regulation” or “principle” “governing conduct” within a particular “area”.

In this case, the “area” is written, edited English. However, the proponents of the rule would wish to assimilate it to definition 1.1.

Clearly “which” in a defining relative clause is both possible and allowable. But the usage absolutists would wish it weren’t, and certainly consider it undesirable. Their fatwa, however, is not like a genuine rule of grammar, such as “A clause in the English declarative mood has the subject followed by the verb.”

4 Who says you have to use “that”?

4. 1 Many people. For British English, the style guides of choice are The Guardian/Observer, The Telegraph, The Times and The Economist.
4.1.1 The Guardian endorses the distinction; as does the Telegraph Style Book, but with lamentable punctuation, in what looks suspiciously similar to The Economist’s perfectly punctuated dictum. The Telegraph has “which and that: which informs that defines. This is the house that Jack built, but: This house, which Jack built is now falling down.”

The Telegraph thus misses out the essential comma closing off the non-restricting clause.

4.1.2 The Economist correctly has: “which and that Which informs, that defines. This is the house that Jack built. But This house, which Jack built, is now falling down. Americans tend to be fussy about making a distinction between which and that. Good writers of British English are less fastidious. (“We have left undone those things which we ought to have done.”).”

(IMHO, for “fastidious” read “anal”.)

However, the Economist style guide occasionally (inevitably?) breaks its own rules, e.g. The Arabic alphabet has several consonants which have no exact equivalents in English (note that “determiner” several, as mentioned earlier).

4.2 For U.S. English,

4.2.1 Garner is dogmatical and absolutist on the matter:

“Legal writers who fail to distinguish restrictive from nonrestrictive clauses—and especially that from which—risk their credibility with careful readers. It’s therefore worthwhile to learn the difference so well that, when writing, you use the correct form automatically.”

Such cut-and-driedness is a reflection, presumably, of the need for absolute clarity and unambiguousness in legal writing.

4.2.2 Chicago is more nuanced: “Although which can be substituted for that in a restrictive clause (a common practice in British English), many writers preserve the distinction between restrictive that (with no commas) and nonrestrictive which (with commas). The APA (American Psychological Association) prefers writers to observe the distinction, and the AP style guide imposes it too.

Fowler and his crystal ball

In his 1926 Dictionary of Modern English Usage, Henry Fowler included lengthy entries on that as relative pronoun and which((that)(who. In the entry for that, he distinguishes the two kinds of clause and assigns them what he considers their appropriate pronoun.

His learned, measured style is perhaps somewhat alien to modern sensibilities and is possibly easier to follow if read aloud:

“The two kinds of relative clause, to one of which that & to the other of which which is appropriate, are the defining & the non-defining; & if writers would agree to regard that as the defining relative pronoun, and which as the non-defining, there would be much gain both in lucidity & in ease. Some there are who follow this principle now ; but it would be idle to pretend it is the practice either of most or of the best writers.”

While Fowler expressed a velleity, it seems that the combined weight of usage guides, not to mention Word’s grammar checker (and no doubt others) is turning it into reality.

Fowler starts out the relevant section by taking usage writers down a peg or several: “What grammarians say should be has perhaps less influence on what shall be than even the more modest of them realize ; usage evolves itself little disturbed by their likes & dislikes.”


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 (2/∞)

  1. The Americans gain a Brownie Point by being more fastidious/anal in this one instance but then they (I’m rather lumping over 300 million of them together here) blow it by using “that” to refer to human beings. The man that…etc. Drives me doolally. Then again, so much in life drives me doolally these days, this seems minor. Takes my mind off Trump, though.


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