Friday 24 May 2013

On a question that/which interests people

A correspondent writes to ask about an old chestnut which/that I realise I haven't discussed in my blog hitherto. He asks about the relative pronoun that/which should be used in the following sentence: 'I believe we sometimes worry about things -- are not within our power, and disease is one of them.' The answer is, of course, either. So the interesting question is: what are the factors that motivate the choice?

The fact that there is a choice at all upset prescriptive grammarians in the 18th century, and they spent a lot of futile energy trying to get rid of it. The usual line was to insist that that goes with restrictive relative clauses (as in the example above) and which goes with nonrestrictive ones (usually shown in writing by commas around the relative clause, and by a separate tone group in speech). So, the recommendation we get in traditional grammar is illustrated by:

The exam, which was taken by class 3, was difficult. (The speaker is talking about only one exam: nonrestrictive, nondefining)
The exam that was taken by class 3 was difficult. (The speaker is talking about several exams, one of which was taken by class 3: restrictive, defining)

Fowler spends six pages trying to sort things out in his Dictionary of Modern English Usage (see the entry under THAT, REL), before throwing in the towel. It's a lovely instance where we see his underlying prescriptive temperament at odds with his awareness that usage is complex and divided:

'Relation between that & which. 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. And yet the temptation to show how better use might have been made of the material to hand is sometimes irresistible. ... The relations between that, who, & which, have come to us from our forefathers as an odd jumble, & plainly show that the language has not been neatly constructed by a master-builder who could create each part to do the exact work required of it, neither overlapped nor overlapping; far from that, its parts have had to grow as they could.'

He goes on to recommend an ideal solution, while acknowledging that it won't work:

'if writers would agree to regard that as the defining relative pronoun, & 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 was the practice either of most or of the best writers'.

Indeed. And when we look at the way modern corpora present the evidence, we can easily see the absurdity of the recommendation when it comes to restrictive clauses (the wh- set is definitely the preferred choice for nonrestrictives). Both grammatical and stylistic factors are involved. Here are some instances where that is preferred over which:

- in cleft sentences: I saw the car that was involved in the accident.
- in a noun phrase containing an ordinal number: the first incident that took place was recorded on film.
- in an indefinite noun phrase: Any letters that are received after Friday will not be read.
- in a noun phrase containing a superlative: The circus was the biggest attraction that had appeared in the town for many years.

That provides the solution when the antecedents are a mix of human and nonhuman: I saw the woman and the dogs that were rescued.

Similarly, that saves us worrying about whether we should use who or which in cases like The foetus -- is allowed to come to term.... And if you are uncertain about the distinction between who and whom, that helps you out too.

Among the stylistic factors, we need to note several points:

- which is weightier, taking up more visual space than that; that is often described as being a 'lighter' word to use, and preferred as sentences become more complex (or 'dense') in structure. (It can also often be informally omitted, of course.)
- considerations of euphony and ease of articulation affect both forms: people find the car that was... slightly easier to say than the car which was..., and the car which those people bought... easier than the car that those people bought...

A particularly important stylistic effect is to avoid repetition. If one of the words is already being used, people try to avoid repeating it: I would never write That is the answer that I prefer or Which is the answer which you prefer? Speech is less predictable in this respect.

It's difficult to generalize, therefore. But, on the whole, that is considered to be more informal than which, and corpus studies show that it is certainly far more frequent in conversation and in fiction, whereas which is far more often used in nonfiction and formal speech such as news reporting. But the prescriptive tradition continues to influence. If a style guide recommends a usage, many will simply follow it. This is probably one of the reasons why the preference for which is so much more noticeable in American English, because writers have been influenced by the Chicago Manual of Style, following the Fowlerian line.


Andrew Shields said...

n your examples with the exam, you mixed up the terms, identifying the restrictive example as nonrestrictive and vice versa.

The ease with which the two terms are mixed up is part of the reason why I prefer the terms "integrated" and "supplementary" (which I picked up from Pullum et al).

Also, it's worth adding one other thing: when the relative pronoun is the complement of a preposition, and the preposition is fronted, then "that" is never used:

The voice with which he sings his songs ...


The voice that/which/[omit] he sings his songs with ...

DC said...

Thanks, Andrew. A bad cut and paste, I'm sorry to say. The text is OK now.

I agree: some alternative terminology would be clearer.

Unknown said...

Hi! This is what Lord Chesterfield says in a letter to his son (London, December 19, o.s. 1751):
“Which and that, though chiefly relative to things, cannot be always used indifferently as to things; and the euphony must sometimes determine their place. For instance, The letter which I received from you, which you referred to in your last, which came by Lord Albemarle’s messenger, and which I showed to such-a-one; I would change it thus – The letter that I received from you, which you referred to in your last , that came by Lord Albemarle’s messenger, and which I showed to such-a-one”.

DC said...

Lovely example of the stylistic point.

Unknown said...

I'm curious about which 18th-century prescriptive grammarians thought there should be a distinction between "that" and "which". I didn't know of anyone before Bain in the 19th century.

DC said...

Yes, the 'rule' became explicit in the 19th century, you're quite right, but it has its origins in a general concern over the choice of relatives that dates back to Lowth and Murray, and that's why I mentioned the 18th. I haven't looked at all sources, in this respect, as you seem to have done, but concern over the choice of relatives is there in Murray's rule 5 in his Syntax section (what vs that, who vs whom, whom vs which, and so on). I think the 19th century anxiety can be traced back to statements like 'The accuracy and clearness of the sentence depend very much upon the proper and determinate use of the relative' (Murray, p. 152). Going back earlier, we find in Lowth (p. 172) a footnote to 'the thing which he wanted' in which he says 'That has been used in the same manner, as including the relative which; but it is either improper or obsolete'. The restrictiveness distinction isn't explicitly there, but I feel it's not far away.

In passing, I'd really appreciate it if contributors to this blog would not use opaque names such as 'anonymous' and 'unknown'. I like to know who I'm talking to.

John Prendergast said...

To keep it simple and less controversial, surely all we need to say is you cannot use "that" in non-restrictive relative clauses, and leave it at that (no pun intended).

Marc Leavitt said...

About that which you discuss; I usually let my ear guide my pen. In speech, not so much.

DC said...

John: problem is that there is divided usage even with nonrestrictives, especially in speech, where there are no commas and where intonation and pause may not offer a clear-cut signal. And that turns up here from time to time in written English too. You'll find that after a comma sometimes in dictionary definitions, for example. Take the opening definition of mass in the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English: 'a large amount of a substance, liquid, or gas, that does not have a clear shape'? The other definitions in this entry, illustrating various collocations, say simply 'a large amount of something' and don't refer to shape, suggesting that the writer saw the 'shape' element in the opening definition as nonessential - hence the comma. These usages, that are often found in blogs nowadays (where there are no copy-editors to impose the traditional rule), are especially common when the antecedent is a plural noun phrase.

Jerry Friedman said...

Thanks for the reply on the 18th- and 19th-century grammarians. I understand your point better. And I hope I didn't imply that I've read all of them!

Having looked at Lowth's note, I understand it as meaning that "that" shouldn't be used for "that which". As such constructions didn't bother the King James translators, I can certainly see it as a new concern for prescription about relatives.

I apologize for posting anonymously. I'd thought I'd signed in, but obviously not. I'm trying a different method this time, but just in case, my name's Jerry Friedman.

David Crosbie said...

Perhaps David's correspondent had been looking at this BBC quiz (click). Question 7 reads:

Sometimes you should use "that" and sometimes "which".
Which sentence here is wrong?

1. The car which ran me over was speeding

2. The car that ran me over was speeding

3. The car, which was speeding, ran me over

After you answer, you get the feedback:

"That" defines something, whereas "which" adds new information in a separate clause, often needing commas.

Not a choice example of public-interest broadcasting. I waned to protest, but couldn't find any easy channel.

DC said...

Jerry: Thanks. Well, I don't know many people who have read Bain, so I was very impressed!

David: yes, that quiz was one of the most depressing things I'd read in a long time.

David Crosbie said...

Incensed by the that/which question in the BBC Grammar Quiz, I looked up some substantial modern grammars. The most interesting treatment was in The Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English, which identified some striking imbalances:

• 70% of texts in the ACADEMIC corpus prefer which over that in restrictive relative clauses.

• 75% of texts in contemporary FICTION prefer that over which.

Which is common in restrictive relative clause in British NEWS texts, but rare in American NEWS.

Which clauses are equally common in British and American CONVERSATION texts. But that clauses are twice as common in American CONVERSATION texts than in British.

(UPPER CASE signifies stylistic division of the total corpus.)

There are interesting examples of successful use of the disprefrred pronoun.

Julia said...

An interesting post, thank you

This is something with which I have always struggled, being rather keen to 'get it right' and often feeling that I have failed...

Although, in these days of text-speak, jargon and evolving social-media communications, and having worked all my life in I.T. I'm not entirely sure why it matters so much to me :)

DC said...

David: Thanks for putting some statistical flesh on the observations in my final paragraph.