Difference between that and which?
August 24, 2006 3:28 PM   Subscribe

Is there some real difference between "that" and "which" that/which would distinguish among their proper usage?
posted by xmutex to Writing & Language (51 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
 
There are a ton of websites that discuss this:

From http://www.kentlaw.edu/academics/lrw/grinker/LwtaThat_Versus_Which.htm

1. Use "that" with restrictive clauses. A restrictive clause is one that limits -- or restricts --the identity of the subject in some way. When writing a restrictive clause, introduce it with the word "that" and no comma. (However, if the subject is or was a human being, use "who" to introduce the clause.)

Correct Restrictive Use:

The painting that was hanging in the foyer was stolen.


Explanation: The use of "that" in this sentence is correct if the reader intends to single out the one painting that was in the foyer as the stolen painting. However, if there were several paintings hanging in the foyer, this use would be incorrect, since it would mislead the reader into believing that there had been only one painting in the foyer. The restriction here tells us that the one painting that had been hanging in the foyer was stolen -- not the painting in the living room, or the one in the drawing room, or any of those in the parlor.


2. Use "which" with nonrestrictive clauses. A nonrestrictive clause may tell us something interesting or incidental about a subject, but it does not define that subject. When writing a nonrestrictive clause, introduce it with "which" and insert commas around the clause. (However, if the subject is or was a human being, use "who" to introduce the clause and insert commas around the clause.)

Correct Nonrestrictive Use:

The painting, which was hanging in the foyer, was stolen.


Explanation: While this nonrestrictive use tells us that the painting was hanging in the foyer, it does not tell us which of the several paintings in the foyer was the stolen painting. It would be incorrect to use this nonrestrictive clause if there had been only one painting in the foyer, as the sentence leaves open the possibility that there were others.
posted by buddha9090 at 3:32 PM on August 24, 2006 [4 favorites]


Quoting Bryan Garner here:
"You'll encounter two schools of thought on this point. First are those who don't care about any distinction between these words, who think that which is more formal than that, and who point to many historical examples of copious whiches. They say that modern usage is a muddle. Second are those who insist that both words have useful functions that ought to be separated, and who observe the distinction rigorously in their own writing. They view departures from this distinction as 'mistakes.'

Before reading any further, you ought to know that something more about these two groups: those in the first probably don't write very well; those in the second just might.

So assuming you want to learn the stylistic distinction, what's the rule? The simplest statement of it is this: if you see a which without a comma (or preposition) before it, nine times out of ten it needs to be a that. The one other time, it needs a comma. Your choice, then, is between comma-which and that. Use that whenever you can."
posted by mattbucher at 3:43 PM on August 24, 2006


It should be noted that this is a style and usage thing, not a grammatical rule. If the usage noted above were followed universally, certain ambiguous constructions would be eliminated. It is not, however, universally followed, and in the past the words were used in exactly the opposite way as presented.
posted by mzurer at 3:46 PM on August 24, 2006 [1 favorite]


well that comma doesn't belong there
posted by mzurer at 3:47 PM on August 24, 2006


And on post-view, I think you'll find that Garner's assertion is totally bogus. Many excellent writers will sometimes use "which" in restrictive clauses.
posted by mzurer at 3:51 PM on August 24, 2006


name one
posted by mattbucher at 3:53 PM on August 24, 2006


Hrrmm, then, consider this sentence:

The radio informed him of the various throughways and byways which at this hour were clogged with traffic.

In this case, which would be correct, yes?
posted by xmutex at 3:54 PM on August 24, 2006


He's not saying excellent writers can't ever use "which" in a restrictive clause, just that it's better to use that whenver possible.
posted by mattbucher at 3:56 PM on August 24, 2006


Thomas Pynchon. I went to Amazon and "searched inside" Gravity's Rainbow for the word "which." The second page of hits produced a use of the word in a restrictive sense. I would wager that 85% of authors occasionally use the word this way. The rule is a favorite of pedants, not of writers.
posted by mzurer at 4:05 PM on August 24, 2006


With that sentence, you have bigger problems (correction follows:)

The radio informed him of the various throughways and byways which at this hour were clogged with traffic.

The radio informed him of the various throughways and byways that were clogged with traffic at this hour.


see?
posted by lilboo at 4:11 PM on August 24, 2006


see?

I fail to see how either is more correct.
posted by xmutex at 4:15 PM on August 24, 2006


The first one is ambiguous. Are all of the throughways and byways clogged at this hour, or only those various ones the radio mentioned? Using "that" disambiguates.
posted by owhydididoit at 4:26 PM on August 24, 2006


As owhydididoit points out, they're both correct, they just mean different things.

The radio informed him of the various throughways and byways which at this hour were clogged with traffic.

should have a comma before "which," and it means that the radio told him of all the thoroughways and byways, and those roads just happened to be clogged at this hour.

The radio informed him of the various throughways and byways that at this hour were clogged with traffic.

means the radio told him of only those roads currently clogged with traffic.

Presumably the second meaning is the one you want, and so would use "that."
posted by occhiblu at 4:31 PM on August 24, 2006


Is there some real difference between "that" and "which" that/which would distinguish among their proper usage?

What do you mean by "real difference" and "proper usage"?

I'm echoing to some extent the Bryan Garner quote:

Historically, there is no "real difference" between "which" and "that". In other words, this is not a matter of correct and incorrect English. It is simply a convention that is observed by many writers.

BUT (and this is a big but): Observing the difference described by the first poster will help you express yourself just a tad clearer. It won't matter much if you write fiction, but if you write manuals or contracts, it is advisable to observe this convention.
posted by sour cream at 4:43 PM on August 24, 2006


I decry prescriptivism when it comes to grammar. The question shouldn't be "is there a rule governing this particular usage?" but rather "what is the foundation for a given rule? does it make sense?" For this that vs. which business, there really isn't any good one. "It says so in X book" doesn't count.

I've found the posts at languagelog.com on this subject helpful, such as this one here, and this one too,

Note that the Which Hunting Rule works well only when the writing you apply it to is generally punctuated correctly. Which is almost always the case for the material that the venerable transatlantic presses' style sheets are applied to. That is, this fairly mechanical rule can be used only to alter the writing of people who are in fact making a stylistic choice between which and that; the effect of the rule is to limit this choice. That's why I object to it.
posted by Brian James at 4:43 PM on August 24, 2006


>It should be noted that this is a style and usage thing, not a grammatical rule.

mzurer is right. It's yet another sibboleth.

If you want your writing to be "correct" in terms of some arbitrary rule, then yes, "that" restricts and "which" doesn't. But plenty of people around the world use "which" to restrict and surprisingly, their civilisations haven't crumbled into chaos and anarchy.

So follow that "rule" when writing business letters (I think MS Word will point out the issue when checking your grammar) because otherwise people who've been taught it as a hard and fast Law Of The Universe will look down on you.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 4:50 PM on August 24, 2006


Useful Link
posted by AmbroseChapel at 4:52 PM on August 24, 2006


Us Brits have a hard time telling the difference, even when we understand the what the rule is.

These examples:

The radio informed him of the various throughways and byways which at this hour were clogged with traffic.

The radio informed him of the various throughways and byways that at this hour were clogged with traffic.


are exactly synonymous to me.

You would have to pause or intonate in some way while speaking in order to convey a difference of meaning, and even then it wouldn't matter whether you used "which" or "that".

Or you could re-order the words in some clunky way.

Even though I understand the rule, and have lived in the US for 12 years, I now find it impossible to embed the distinction into my head.

The same way I can't hear Americans distinguish between "can" and "can't".
posted by blue_wardrobe at 4:57 PM on August 24, 2006


^the what the^what the
posted by blue_wardrobe at 4:58 PM on August 24, 2006


I think it's a useful distinction.

The mental test I use to figure out which is appropriate involves the phrases "by the way" and "not the other one."

The radio informed him of the various throughways and byways which by the way were clogged with traffic.

Hmm, that doesn't make sense.

The radio informed him of the various throughways and byways that were clogged with traffic (not the other ones).

Ah, that makes more sense.
posted by ottereroticist at 5:12 PM on August 24, 2006


The radio informed him of the various throughways and byways which at this hour were clogged with traffic.

The whole thing is awkward. Why not just say "The radio informed him of traffic conditions" or "He heard traffic information on the radio" or "The radio told him which roads were clogged"?

The point being that a lot of these "rules" and violations thereof can be eliminated by saying what you want to say more simply and straightforwardly.

Or in the first answer's quote: "The painting in the foyer was stolen" should be acceptable in all but the most overwhelmingly formal settings. Context will indicate whether you're talking about the painting currently in the foyer being stolen property or the blank spot in the foyer where there's no longer a painting.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:21 PM on August 24, 2006


The point being that a lot of these "rules" and violations thereof can be eliminated by saying what you want to say more simply and straightforwardly.

Yeah, but that doesn't make knowing the rules a bad thing. It may not automatically make you a good writer, but it certainly doesn't hinder you to understand grammar.
posted by occhiblu at 5:30 PM on August 24, 2006


>it certainly doesn't hinder you to understand grammar

But it's not "grammar", occhiblu, it's just a rule like which fork to use. This sentence has a grammar problem:
The radio informed him of the various throughways and byways which at this hour were traffic with clogged.
The other examples suffer from nothing worse than mild ambiguity, and that only for some speakers of a sub-set of English. There's no problem to blue_wardrobe's ear.

I can't help but think this thread has been hampered by a pretty bad example. I vote we go back to

"The painting[,] (that|which) was hanging in the foyer[,] was stolen."

Which means either "The painting was stolen. Which one? the one hanging in the foyer" or "The painting was stolen and by the way it was hanging in the foyer at the time".

As a speaker of British English, I'm happy with either "that" or "which" (although I'd say "which"), for both meanings.

Any ambiguity would be resolved simply by the way it was spoken, or by punctuation.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 5:57 PM on August 24, 2006


But it is grammar. It's a grammar rule that's falling out of common use, and I'd agree it's not a huge deal, but there are still grammatical distinctions between how the words are ideally supposed to be used, and what they mean.

It's like the distinction between "who" and "whom." Few people bother with it anymore, but that doesn't mean there's not a grammatical difference between the two words.
posted by occhiblu at 6:03 PM on August 24, 2006


(Though actually, maybe it's more like the difference between "father" and "daddy." It's not that one's more correct, just the information you're conveying and the emphasis you're creating by choosing one word over the other is different.)
posted by occhiblu at 6:07 PM on August 24, 2006


In most sentences containing that and which, changing one for the other changes the meaning. While you might still get foor into your mouth using the wrong fork, you're being ambiguous using which where you should use that.

"Apples, which are red, are delicious." means all apples are both red and delicious.
"Apples that are red are delicious." means only red apples are delicious, and implies that some apples aren't red.

There are good, logical reasons for using one rather than the other. It's not just an arbitrary rule.

I write papers for publication in scientific journals where you have to speak precisely and take care to avoid implying the existence or non-existence of something. Imagine making a controversial statement about the properties of a class of proteins using which where you should use that. These things matter for me. Incidentally, every time my English-educated colleague gives me a draft to proof-read for him, I have to correct his thats and whiches. I have tried to correct his deplorable use of passive voice, too, with marginal success.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 6:18 PM on August 24, 2006 [1 favorite]


Here's me:
Any ambiguity would be resolved simply by [...] punctuation.
here's someone posting an example where, guess what, any ambiguity is resolved by punctuation:
"Apples, which are red, are delicious."
"Apples that are red are delicious."
And yet, despite the fact you clearly agree, you think you disagree? I don't get it.

>it is grammar. It's a grammar rule that's falling out of common use

Obviously
  1. you and I don't mean the same thing by the word "grammar"
  2. you missed the part where a couple of native English speakers from outside the USA say they don't see a distinction
What's your cite for the fact that it's "falling out of common use"?
posted by AmbroseChapel at 6:32 PM on August 24, 2006


>every time my English-educated colleague gives me a draft to proof-read for him, I have to correct his thats and whiches

Ouch! The thing is, if you move to the UK, someone will have to "correct" your use of language too. Because it is just an arbitrary rule.

I'm really considering asking a question, 'Why is it that people always argue so intensely that these "rules" matter?' It seems to be a very low-level, visceral feeling that gets stirred up, psychologically, something like the disgust reflex.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 6:36 PM on August 24, 2006


This thread would be a good example. My years of working as a professional editor, during which I've had the same experience as Mr. Gunn of people not making the distinction, would be another.

People are rarely making the distinction any more. So it's falling out of common use. I don't understand why that's a confusing statement.

And your punctuation thing is confused by the fact that "which" should always take a comma, because it indicates a non-restrictive clause, which should always be surrounded by commas. So yes, it's solved by punctuation, but the punctuation should properly only be used when you're using "which." In the apple example, if you use commas, you can't use "that"; it would sound awkward. (Apples, that are red, are delicious.) So you're basically arguing that when one wants to create a non-restrictive clause, one should use commas and "which." Which... is the currently existing grammatical rule for creating non-restrictive clauses.

What's happening more often now is that people are using "which" in restrictive clauses, but not using the commas. So "that," in common usage, always indicates a restrictive clause and isn't dependent on commas to indicate that; "which" indicates either a restrictive or non-restrictive clause, depending on the punctuation.

So rather than following the traditional rule and having two indicators (word choice and punctuation) about whether the clause is restrictive or non-restrictive, we now usually have only one (punctuation). Which is not the end of the world, but which does make comprehension harder, because there are fewer clues to the author's meaning. Which I do think is a bad thing.
posted by occhiblu at 6:44 PM on August 24, 2006


I meant to add: Since people also tend to misuse commas rather badly, a reader's having to rely solely on commas to determine what the author meant can be a losing proposition.
posted by occhiblu at 6:48 PM on August 24, 2006


>it's falling out of common use. I don't understand why that's a confusing statement.

I wasn't confused by it, I just asked for a cite.

your punctuation thing is confused by the fact that "which" should always take a comma, because it indicates a non-restrictive clause


This is a perfectly circular argument -- it includes "because [the very thing we're arguing about]" as if it were a self-evident truth.

occhiblu, I am not in America. I am, however, a native speaker of the English language. I wouldn't mind if you just inserted "In America..." into your argument that this is a rule. It is not a rule where I come from. And it's not a rule where I am now. Is that OK with you?

The argument that it's not a "rule" of grammar at all isn't going to get solved any time soon, I can see that.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 6:55 PM on August 24, 2006


It's absolutely not a rule that has fallen out of use. It was never a rule, and in fact, this book does some textual analysis to show that the usage in American journalism was once exactly opposite what is being described.
posted by mzurer at 7:23 PM on August 24, 2006


See also Fowler in 1908. What's interesting is that I believe he is the one who first popularized the idea of restricting "which" to non-restrictive clauses, but he makes an argument from utility (style), not because it's a rule on the order of subject/verb agreement (grammar).

And if you really think it ever was a rule, spend a few minutes doing what I mentioned above. Search inside some writers' works. Dickens, for example, or Pynchon as noted.
posted by mzurer at 7:33 PM on August 24, 2006 [1 favorite]


Simply because something was not a rule in the past does not mean that it's not a rule now, nor does something not being true in British English mean that it's not true in American English.

xmutex, who is in Seattle, asked for the difference between "that" and "which." One would assume he was not asking for the British English grammatical distinction, nor the assumption that they had no difference.

Based on the question asked, and the location of the questioner, and the current grammatical guidelines, there is a difference between "that" and "which." I fully completely 100% accept that this is not a distinction that transcends geography or languages, and I fully completely 100% accept that not all grammar rules are equal in weight nor equally important in producing clear, comprehensible writitng.

As of right now, August 24, 2006, in the United States, the most uptight grammar rules for Standard American English confine "which" to non-restrictive clauses and "that" to restrictive clauses.

That, to me, is the answer to the question being asked. The fact that the poster in fact marked the answer to that question as "best answer" would seem to confirm that that is the question being asked. If you wish to argue about whether that *should* be a rule, or *why* it's a rule, or *whether* it's a rule, or *how many countries* accept it as a rule, that's fine, but it's an entirely separate question, and not one that I was ever attempting to answer.

I think it's fine if people choose to ignore grammatical conventions, if they understand them first and decide that the rule in question is too prim or precious for the matter at hand. I think it's idiotic of people to dismiss grammar rules because they don't understand them, or they have some vague sense that "the reader will know what I mean." These rules and conventions exist so that bad writers can nevertheless convery their ideas accurately. If you're good enough to get your ideas across accurately without them, good on ya; but don't assume that all writers are equally adept.
posted by occhiblu at 8:33 PM on August 24, 2006


As of right now, August 24, 2006, in the United States, the most uptight grammar rules for Standard American English confine "which" to non-restrictive clauses and "that" to restrictive clauses.

Swap in style guides and copy editors for the boldface phrase above and you're onto something.

I really enjoy precision in language. Which is why I argue the point - It is not a rule of grammar and to claim so is to be sloppy in your use of that word.
posted by mzurer at 9:06 PM on August 24, 2006


It appears in American grammar books. Often. That, to me, constitutes a grammar rule. It's not the same as whether to italicize a comma following an italicized word, or how to cite a magazine article. It is a uncontroversial rule in grammar books, whose importance is debated. That's not the same as a style issue.
posted by occhiblu at 9:15 PM on August 24, 2006


Which grammar books?
posted by mzurer at 9:18 PM on August 24, 2006


The A-H, for one. And I remember learning it in whatever book we used in 8th grade English, as well as the various copy manuals we used when I was editing books.
posted by occhiblu at 9:33 PM on August 24, 2006


Did you even read that entry?

Some people extend the rule and insist that, just as that should be used only in restrictive clauses, which should be used only in nonrestrictive clauses. By this thinking, you should avoid using which in sentences such as I need a book which will tell me all about city gardening, where the restrictive clause which will tell me all about city gardening describes what sort of book is needed. But this use of which with restrictive clauses is very common, even in edited prose. If you fail to follow the rule in this point, you have plenty of company. Moreover, there are some situations in which which is preferable to that. Which can be especially useful where two or more relative clauses are joined by and or or: It is a philosophy in which ordinary people may find solace and which many have found reason to praise. You may also want to use which to introduce a restrictive clause when the preceding phrase contains a that: We want to assign only that book which will be most helpful.

Emphasis mine.
posted by mzurer at 9:39 PM on August 24, 2006 [1 favorite]


Yes, as I've been saying over and over again, it's a rule that's often ignored. That doesn't mean it's not a rule, just that it's not a very important rule.
posted by occhiblu at 9:41 PM on August 24, 2006


I mean, the fact that most people jaywalk or smoke pot doesn't make it not-illegal. Just laws that very few people follow, and therefore laws that are not overly enforced.
posted by occhiblu at 9:42 PM on August 24, 2006


Yes, but occhiblu, if you're talking about laws, these are sociocultural ones, not physical ones, and these laws depend completely on people, their perceptions, and their practices. When people cease to abide by laws, they stop being laws and elide instead into the territory of recommendations. If everyone smokes pot and jaywalks, then those activities are de facto legal activities.

Personally, I'm a big fan of precision where it matters.
posted by yellowcandy at 10:03 PM on August 24, 2006


I spent my lunch hour reading the links from Language Log which were posted earlier.
  1. Don't do this at home, kiddies!
  2. The people from the CCGW are here to see you
  3. What I currently know about which and that
  4. Five more thoughts on the That Rule
They're funny, they're clever, they're detailed, they cite authorities and they make a very strong case that even the organisations which promulgate this "rule" are being hypocritical and inconsistent about it.

occhiblu, I suggest you read them too.

>xmutex, who is in Seattle, asked for the difference between "that" and "which."

And instead of that, you quoted a localised convention as if it were a rule of grammar.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 10:06 PM on August 24, 2006


It's language. It's all convention. What on earth are you differentiating between? There are no immutable laws of lanugage. There are just accepted conventions for its use. We call those grammar rules. Unless you're going to get into some seriously theoretical linguistic arguments, what we call "grammar" is nothing more than a bunch of conventions. Language is nothing more than a bunch of conventions. That's the entire scope of the question.
posted by occhiblu at 10:08 PM on August 24, 2006


Yes, exactly. Rules of language are, by your own admission, flexible. This is why the that/which distinction becomes increasingly meaningless when the law regulating the difference is ignored.
posted by yellowcandy at 2:06 AM on August 25, 2006


A professor of mine in journalism school dressed up as a witch with a cardboard cutout of a comma every Halloween. She was the "comma which."
posted by 10ch at 5:01 AM on August 25, 2006 [1 favorite]


That. Which. That is the defining, or restrictive pronoung, which the nondefining, or nonrestrictive....
The lawn mower that is broken is in the garage. (Tells which one)

The lawn mower, which is broken, is in the garage. (Adds a fact about the only mower in question).
The use of which for that is common in written and spoken language ("Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass.") Occasionally which seems preferable to that, as in the sentence from the Bible. But it would be a convenience to all if these two pronouns were used with precision. The careful writer, watchful for small conveniences, goes which-hunting, removes the defining whiches, and by so doing improves his work.
--Strunk & White, The Elemtns of Style, 3rd ed.
posted by pardonyou? at 6:33 AM on August 25, 2006


mzurer is right. This is not a grammar rule. It is a good suggestion made by a well educated Englishman 100 years ago. No one will fault you for following it.
posted by RussHy at 7:46 AM on August 25, 2006


I don't agree with the explanation of the second case that buddha9090's posted:

The painting, which was hanging in the foyer, was stolen.

Explanation: While this nonrestrictive use tells us that the painting was hanging in the foyer, it does not tell us which of the several paintings in the foyer was the stolen painting.
[1]

There's no reason to assume, from this sentence, that there is more than one painting in the foyer. The statement merely tells us that there was a stolen painting. And, by the way, it used to live in the foyer. A non-restrictive element--by definition--can be removed without altering the meaning of the sentence.

The explanation continues thus:
It would be incorrect to use this nonrestrictive clause if there had been only one painting in the foyer, as the sentence leaves open the possibility that there were others.

This explanation is simply not true and is based on the groundless assumption that there is more than one painting in the first place.
posted by wheat at 12:26 PM on August 25, 2006


Yes, it's not true that "which" would be an incorrect use if there were multiple paintings in the foyer, but it is correct that using "that" does indicate it was the only painting in the foyer.

In other words, it's just a question of how precise you want to be about the information you're presenting.
posted by occhiblu at 1:29 PM on August 26, 2006


This is a thread which will live in infamy.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 5:35 PM on August 27, 2006


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