Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

I keep seeing written usage of which in cases where the writer clearly intends it to be restrictive. For example:

I have been counting these as errors because it is my understanding that that is restrictive, and which is not.

Do I have this right?

share|improve this question

marked as duplicate by Drew, tchrist, TimLymington, Ronan, RegDwigнt Aug 22 '14 at 14:25

This question has been asked before and already has an answer. If those answers do not fully address your question, please ask a new question.

My GMAT instructor and the Oxford guide to english grammar, along with me, agrees to what you think as right. "That" is used if the modifier is Essential and it is used without commas. For example: the mansion that is painted red is mine. "Which" is used if the modifier is non-essential and with a comma. Like in "This mansion, which has been painted red, is mine." In everyday conversations "that" and "which" are interchangeable. –  vickyace Aug 21 '14 at 21:09
No, unfortunately this is a myth promulgated by awful books and then sometimes repeated by EFL teachers ... –  Araucaria Aug 21 '14 at 22:09
@vickyace Can you give us the quote from the Oxford book along with its title, please? –  Araucaria Aug 21 '14 at 22:10
@Drew On the contrary, that post is about using that in NON-defining relative clauses. This question is entirely about defining relative clauses. –  Araucaria Aug 21 '14 at 22:11
@vickyace I don't think that anyone disputes that which is used in non-defining relative clauses, or, indeed, that that is used in defining ones. But can you give us a quote where it says that which is NOT used in defining relative clauses? –  Araucaria Aug 21 '14 at 23:34

1 Answer 1

up vote 3 down vote accepted

[This is an important question because of all the folks visiting this site for guidance, who may well pass answers on to other students and writers. I myself in my pre-linguist days used to fall victim to this 'rule'. I have total sympathy for the Original Poster, as I do for my former self, and all literature, EFL students and authors who are confronted with this so-called grammar rule. GMAT students don't despair, just find which non-existent rule they're looking for now. It's quite good fun and not that difficult. Anyway here's my answer to the question...]

The idea that which is not used for restrictive clauses is a myth promulgated in the worst English grammar text-books and style guides ever written. The greatest writers in the English language have continuously used which as a relative pronoun in restrictive relative clauses — as has everyone else too.

Some info from the post Sidney Goldberg on NYT grammar: zero for three, by Geoffrey Pullum, Professor of General Linguistics at the University of Edinburgh, co-editor of the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (2002), shows how far through various books you would need to go before finding which appearing as a restrictive relative pronoun. The first number given in the list below shows the number of lines in the entire book. The second number shows on which line the author first used which as a relative pronoun in a restrictive relative clause:

  • A Christmas Carol (Dickens): 1,921 lines, first occurrence on line 217 = 11% of the way through;
  • Alice in Wonderland (Carroll): 1,618 lines, line 143 = 8%;
  • Dracula (Stoker): 9,824 lines, line 8 = less than 1%;
  • Lord Jim (Conrad): 8,045 lines, line 15 = 1%;
  • Moby Dick (Melville): 10,263 lines, line 103 = 1%;
  • Wuthering Heights (Bronte): 7,599 lines, line 56 = 0.736%...

Now, I know these authors are idiots who didn't know how to speak English properly, but just how did their editors and publishers get away with it? And all the people who decided to put these books on school syllabi? They, of course, should be shot.

Getting serious again: importantly, as Pullum also shows in the post A Rule Which Will Live in Infamy, there are situations when we, in fact, cannot use that for restrictive clauses and in which we have to use which. (Oh look one of them happened right there. I couldn't for example have written ... "and in that we have to use which"). Here are the three situations Geoff Pullum describes:

  • The putative ban can’t apply when a preposition precedes the relative pronoun: The town in which she lived is grammatical but *the town in that she lived isn’t.
  • The supposed rule should be ignored when modifying demonstrative that, because that which you prefer is clearly preferable to ?that that you prefer.
  • The rule can’t apply to a conjoined which: We must trust the unknown entity who or which created us is grammatical but *We must trust the unknown entity who or that created us isn’t.

Here is the passage in which (Oh no, there I go again with another one!) the famous quote that Pullum is playing with appears:

“Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.” That was how President Franklin D. Roosevelt opened his famous infamy speech, 71 years ago. Ignoring the writing handbooks, he opened with a passive construction, which of course is just right for the rhetorical context (America as innocent victim). And he also ignored another bogeyman rule: He introduced a restrictive relative clause with which.

The answer to the OP's question, therefore, is that which can, and sometimes must, be used for restrictive relative clauses. It's not a mistake to do so.

I leave you with Geoff Pullum's last words from the link above:

Grammar snobs trying to show off their linguistic rectitude by playing gotcha with an invented rule that never matched educated usage; copy editors slaving away trying to enforce it; Microsoft Word blindly putting wavy green underlining under every relative which not preceded by a comma. What a senseless waste of time and energy.

Follow the Fowler rule if you want to; it’s up to you. But don’t tell me that it’s crucial or that the best writers respect it. It’s a time-wasting early-20th-century fetish, a bogeyman rule undeserving of the attention of intelligent grownups.

share|improve this answer
I appreciate the time spent to post this answer and its detail. I'm curious about the apparent annoyance about my (seeming) misconception--it was just a question! The resources you picked seem particularly vitriolic about the topic. Also, I didn't find the use of in which to be compelling or clever--clearly, in which is restrictive, but I wasn't asking about it. Also, when that is not correct, which must obviously be used. My question was not about those cases. –  ErikE Aug 21 '14 at 22:48
@ErikE Sorry if it came across that I'm annoyed about your question. I'm not!! Really, really not! I think it's a very, very important question indeed, and I don't for one sec think there's anything wrong with having this idea per se. What does kind of make me mad though is that someone invented this rule, and it now affects language learners, writers, students, grammarians and GMAT sitters all over the globe, when the so-called grammar point never had any basis in the actual language! I don't understand what GMAT want people to use when they want need to say the box in which its hidden ... –  Araucaria Aug 21 '14 at 23:15
@ErikE I've edited my post to show my actual feelings, and so that it's plain that I feel that your question (which I'd already upvoted) is important and worthy! Hope this comes across now :) –  Araucaria Aug 21 '14 at 23:32
I think saying "Which cannot be used in any restrictive sense" is patently false. It can be used, but with different constructions such as in which or that which. As a drop-in replacement for that (when used in its restrictive sense), it seems less apt to me. –  ErikE Aug 22 '14 at 0:04
@ErikE: the difference between restrictive which and non-restrictive which in speech is conveyed by intonation, stress, and whether there is a short pause before which. The difference in writing is conveyed by context and/or by a comma before a non-restrictive which. There's no need to restrict which to non-restrictive clauses, and this is a very confusing rule because it goes against the natural tendencies of several hundred million native English speakers, most of whom wouldn't be able to tell you what a non-restrictive clause was, even though they know intuitively. –  Peter Shor Aug 22 '14 at 14:24

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.