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WHICH or THAT?


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#1 Burgess Laughlin

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Posted 04 August 2005 - 11:34 AM

Here is a point I wrestle with:

(1) I sold the house that my father had repaired.

(2) I sold the house, which had long been a financial burden.

BACKGROUND. Here, that and which are relative pronouns. In the two examples above, that and which relate (connect) the clause that follows to the clause that precedes. For example, in sentence 1, that connects the following clause ("my father had repaired [it]") to the preceding main clause ("I sold the house").

Second, a relative pronoun is a pronoun, the part of speech that stands in the place of a noun. In sentence 1, that replaces the noun "house."

PROBLEM: Should an objective writer use that or which as a relative pronoun connecting clauses? Should I write this:

(3) I sold the house that my father had repaired.

Or should I write this:

(4) I sold the house which my father had repaired.

The answer depends on the kind of clause you are connecting to the main clause. If the second clause helps define (specify) the main clause, then use that. In sentence 1, the clause "that my father had repaired" defines "the house" by specifying the house the writer is writing about.

If the second clause is parenthetical (meaning it could be deleted), then use which after a comma. Sentence 2 shows an example. The clause "which had long been a financial burden" adds information not crucial to understanding the main clause ("I sold the house").

Corrections? Questions? Exceptions?
Burgess Laughlin
www.aristotleadventure.com -- The Aristotle Adventure: A Guide to the Greek, Arabic, and Latin Scholars Who Transmitted Aristotle's Logic to the Renaissance.

#2 Burgess Laughlin

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Posted 04 August 2005 - 11:42 AM

ADDITIONAL POINTS. (1) In ordinary speech rather than in writing, most people use that much more often than which. Why? Because parenthetical clauses (introduced by which) are rare in short sentences; and short sentences are typical of speech, in normal conversation.

(2) The relative pronoun referring to a person is who (or whom) not which or that. An example is: "I ignored the tattooed beggar who asked me for a dollar." Repulsive though he might be, the beggar is a person, not an object. It is incorrect to write: "I ignored the beggar that asked me for a dollar."

(3) If you are confused in writing a particular sentence that has a relative pronoun connecting two clauses, try deleting the relative pronoun. Here is an example:

(3a) Logic is another issue that I have wrestled with.

(3b) Logic is another issue I have wrestled with.

I believe sentence (3a) is more precise. When I want to be certain about meaning, when the sentence is complicated, or when I am writing to readers who might be reading English as a second language, I prefer including that because it generally adds clarity. However, (3b) is clear enough for many readers. It is also a little more concise.
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#3 DavidOdden

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Posted 04 August 2005 - 01:41 PM

The rule for obligatorily using "which" in non-restrictive relative clauses ("My father's house, which I inherited last year...") is correct, and, at least if one knows the rules for proper use of commas, the comma rule will prevent you from making errors such as *"My father's house, that I inherited last year". This rule only holds for relative clauses, and not similar-appearing complement clauses such as "Rand's ethical claim, that man's primary choice is between existence and non-existence...".

Related to the use of the wh-form, who/whom should be used when the referent is human, thus "The man (who/*that) I saw". Using "which" for humans is totally out everywhere (though see below). This is a somewhat old-fashioned rule, but it is still applicable in writing. Of course, it is not applicable in writing dialogue, where the purpose is to convey spoken language, and in certain kinds of dialogue it would be wrong to use "who" referring to a human. I've recently become aware of a strange development in spoken use of "who" / "which" among the young, that they say things that I thought nobody who spoke the language would actually use. The standard pattern is that you can say:

1. I know the person who hit you.
2. ?I know the person that hit you.
3. I know the dog that bit you.
4. I know the dog which bit you.

but not

5. *I know the person which hit you.
6. *I know the dog who bit you.

But, I've had students tell me that they can say things like those last two sentences. I was so stunned that I didn't take careful notes, so I will need to check this more carefully in the near future.

Generally, using "which" / "who" is 'higher style', and "that" is more conversational; similarly, use of "that" to refer to humans is lower style than using "who", so in highly formal writing, I wouild say that it is sufficiently inappropriate to use "that" in refering to humans that it is wrong (and as editor, I would correct it). However, it is still grammatically possible to use "that" in the context of restrictive relative clauses, so you must make a choice (which is where style of writing has to be considered). There is also a general "non-repetitiveness" rule {which/that} tells you that variety is the spice of life, so adding a "that" breaks up the monotony. A grip on pronunciation can help: if the pronoun can be unaccented, then switching to "that" is appropriate.

Total deletion of the pronoun is possible in spoken English (it's basically the extreme end of de-acccenting "that"), but it's usually inappropriate for written language, again unless you are writing in a conversational manner. The reason for this has to do with a psychological factor regarding how language is understood, which is best illustrated by the fact that strictly following of grammar, the sentence "The horse the man I knew bought died" is "okay", but completely incomprehensible. The example "Logic is another issue I have wrestled with" puts a fairly mild burden on the reader's ability to understand what you are saying. A similar example where the pronoun is omitted would be:

7. The horse that raced past the barn died from heat exhaustion.
vs.
8. The horse raced past the barn died from heat exhaustion.

where I think most people would find the second option to be a bit bizarre, though not as bad as turning

9. The horse that raced past the barn fell down.
into
10. The horse raced past the barn fell down.

#4 Guest_danielshrugged_*

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Posted 04 August 2005 - 04:22 PM

If the second clause is parenthetical (meaning it could be deleted), then use which after a comma. Sentence 2 shows an example. The clause "which had long been a financial burden" adds information not crucial to understanding the main clause ("I sold the house").

Corrections? Questions? Exceptions?

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Both "who" and "which" may be used either in restrictive clauses or in non-restrictive clauses. For example:

1. The man who opened the door has brown hair. (restrictive...the relative clause specifies which man)
2. This man, who is my friend, has brown hair. (non-restrictive)
3. Do you have the strength of mind which is necessary to succeed? (restrictive)
4. Do you have a pencil, which you will need to take this test? (non-restrictive)

"That" may be used only in restrictive clauses. When the relative pronoun in a restrictive relative clause refers back to something such as a thing or an animal (i.e., something gender neutral), then there is a legitimate option whether to use "that" or "which." I usuallly let my ear decide.




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