The Negative Canon: Which Way? That Way?

This post is one in a series about The Negative Canon.

There are two kinds of English relative clause. They have been traditionally known as restrictive and non-restrictive or defining and non-defining. In this post I follow the practice of ‘The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language’ in calling them integrated and supplementary (although I preserve the terms used in quotations).

An integrated relative clause is one that is essential to the meaning of the sentence as in:

(1) That’s the tree which/that was blown down in the storm.

A supplementary relative clause, by contrast, merely adds additional information, as in:

(2) That tree, which was the last one my grandfather planted, was blown down in the storm.

Supplementary relative clauses like that in (2) are normally introduced by which when the antecedent is inanimate. Integrated relative clauses like that in (1) can be introduced by either which or that. Some, particularly in the United States, will dispute this, claiming that which is used to introduce supplementary relative clauses (which is true) and that that must introduce integrated relative clauses (which isn’t).

On actual usage, ‘The Cambridge Guide to English Usage’ reports that:

The ‘Longman Grammar’ shows that which (and who) are actually used more for restrictive than nonrestrictive clauses in all kinds of writing, from a corpus of British and American English. However the ‘Chicago Manual’ (2003) endorses the Fowlerian ideal [of restrictive that and nonrestrictive which] as good practice, and American editors and writers more often seem to be exponents of it than their counterparts elsewhere.

However, R L Trask, an American by birth, wrote in ‘Mind The Gaffe’, using an integrated relative clause as an example :

A relative clause may often be introduced either with that or with which (for things) or who (for people). So you may write either the topic that I want to consider or the topic which I want to consider (or, in a more informal style, the topic I want to consider).

Moreover, it was an American president who said of 7 December 1941 that it was ‘a date which will live in infamy’.

‘Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage’, itself an American publication, is equally tolerant of integrated relative clauses introduced by which. After a long discussion, the authors conclude that:

. . . at the end of the 20th century, the usage of which and that – at least in prose – has pretty much settled down. You can use either which or that to introduce a restrictive clause – the grounds for your choice should be stylistic – and which to introduce a nonrestrictive clause.

That advice still seems not to be universally accepted. As Geoffrey Pullum felt obliged to write (in another context):

Most American copy editors and grammar pedants think [that which in integrated relative clauses] has to be avoided for grammatical reasons. They are wrong: see this page for discussion . . . British speakers have never been so inclined to believe in the fictive that-not-which rule that so many Americans suffer under.

Elsewhere, he says the rule banning which from restrictive relative clauses is:

. . . a time-wasting early-20th-century fetish, a bogeyman rule undeserving of the attention of intelligent grownups.

For more in the same vein, see here.

It has been pointed out to me as a counter-argument that the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) considers the example:

The report which Marshall had tried to suppress was greeted with hilarity.

The CMS entry continues:

Which of the following is meant?

The report, which Marshall had tried to suppress, was greeted with hilarity.
The report that Marshall had tried to suppress was greeted with hilarity.

When the commas intended to set off a nonrestrictive clause are omitted, perhaps with the purpose of using ‘which’ restrictively, the reader may well wonder whether the omission was inadvertent. Some uncertainty will persist.

If the relative clause is not set off by commas there is no ambiguity, whether which or that is chosen. If it is argued that not everyone understands this use of commas, it can just as well be argued that not everyone understands, or even accepts, that the choice between which and that makes a difference. There is of course no ambiguity if either which or that is omitted (The report Marshall had tried to suppress was greeted with hilarity), and in any case, the occasions on which the context does not resolve any ambiguity must be rare.

‘The Cambridge Guide to English points out that in some restrictive contexts, the use of that is indeed normal worldwide. The instances given are:

  • after superlatives: the best wine that’s made in New Zealand . . .
  • after ordinal numbers: the first hotel that has a vacancy . . .
  • after indefinites (some, any, every, much, little, all): I’ll take back any that are unused . . .
  • in a cleft sentence: It’s the label that has a bird on it.
  • when the antecedents are both human and nonhuman: Neither horse nor rider that fail the water jump find it easy to recover.

Nevertheless, insistence on the use of that and only that in an integrated relative clause is a shibboleth. It is not ungrammatical to use that in that position if you want to, but there are no grounds for claiming  that the use of which is. Into the NC it goes.



Filed under The Negative Canon

8 responses to “The Negative Canon: Which Way? That Way?

  1. NOVEMBER 7, 1941? Ouch!


  2. Also, my American ear just hears “which” as more restrictive, but while it may sound effete at times, it does not sound wrong.


  3. As usual EFL teaching is firmly in the descriptive camp, and we teach that both ‘that’ and ‘which’ are fine in defining relative clauses.

    And then, there’s also ‘that’ for people – ‘Everybody that was there had a marvellous time’.

    I would suggest, however, that if we really want more people to take an interest in grammar, introducing new names for things which already had perfectly good ones doesn’t really help, outside the world of theoretical linguistics. Millions of Americans understand what is meant by ‘restrictive relative clause’ and millions of EFL/ESL learners know what is meant by ‘defining relative clause’.

    In my blog posts I already have to write ‘defining relative clause (also known as restrictive relative clause)’. To add yet another set of terms seems to me to be unnecessarily complicating things. For example, we all had a pretty good idea about phrasal verbs but now we have to deal with the oh-so-trendy multi-word (or multi-part -take your pick) verbs.

    That’s why the much maligned and much misunderstood numbered conditionals system in EFL/ESL works. We might each have our own explanations, but everyone uses the same terminology, so we all know what we are talking about.


    • Some may reject ‘that’ for people, but they’re probably those who don’t understand the different types of relative clause.

      ‘Integrated’ and ‘supplementary’ seem to me to be more descriptive than the alternatives, but I agree that a multiplicty of terms is unhelpful.

      I didn’t know there was supposed to be anything trendy about the term ‘multi-word verbs’. The authors of the ‘Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English’ use it, and that was published 14 years ago. It’s more accurate, because phrasal verbs are only one type of multi-word verb.


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