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If I wish to say something along the lines of

Consider the bear that scratches his head.

It seems to me that I could instead say

Consider the bear which scratches his head.

I am unsure which of these is correct, if it even matters.

Does anyone know a rule which makes this clear?

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The title of this question, at least, suggests that this question is not about proper usage, but about if getting it wrong ever actually matters which I don't think it does. This would make it not a dupe. – Seamus Oct 8 '10 at 9:58
@Seamus: sure, but then again, there are the words "correct" and "rule" in the body of the question. And the accepted answer sounds like a rather strict rule; at least it's not at all "about if getting it wrong ever actually matters which I don't think it does". (ShreevatsaR's and nohat's comments do address that, but they are not part of the answer as it stands.) – RegDwigнt Oct 8 '10 at 11:20
I am sorry for the partial dupe, I tried searching around, but I guess I still missed them. – BBischof Oct 8 '10 at 18:39
Entirely not your fault, BBischof, the site search doesn't really work for quite a few stop words. – RegDwigнt Oct 8 '10 at 19:20
up vote 14 down vote accepted

That is restrictive, it limits / restricts / specifies the identity of the subject. Using your example, the bear that scratches his head refers to one specific bear -- "the bear that scratches his head".

Which is non-restrictive, meaning it refers to something incidental about the subject. "Consider the bear, which scratches its head" refers to the bear (could be a single bear, could be the species), which happens to scratch its head.

Hope that helps!

EDIT: ShreevatsaR has pointed out that this is a convention, not a grammar rule. In the end it doesn't "matter", use the convention if it appeals to you. Here is MW's take (thanks, nohat).

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Thank you very much! This is perfect! – BBischof Oct 8 '10 at 3:21
This is not an actual rule of English grammar, just a convention that some people have chosen. Using "which" for restrictive clauses (e.g. "the bear which scratches its head") is extremely common in English, by many good writers. Follow this convention only if it appeals to you; it's not a part of grammar. – ShreevatsaR Oct 8 '10 at 4:05
@ShreevatsaR That is interesting. Do you have a citation for this? (I'm not testing you, I am truly interested). – Chris Dwyer Oct 8 '10 at 5:04
Just wanted to add the obligatory language log link echoing ShreevatsaR, one article among many: itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/000918.html – Ophiuroid Oct 8 '10 at 5:11
ShreevatsaR is correct. Here is the relevant page in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. – nohat Oct 8 '10 at 5:31

One practical, grammatical difference is that, in writing, 'which' will be preceded by a comma (or other visual pause).

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Is this true?! If this is in fact correct, thank you for pointing this out, as I had no idea. :/ +1 for now, but can you give a reference? Not that I think you are lying, but I am a bit paranoid now with respect to colloquialisms vs rules. This site is making me ever more nervous. – BBischof Oct 8 '10 at 19:27
Speaking of commas, my usage above is visually hilarious and I can barely follow it. – mfg Oct 15 '10 at 13:00

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