2

I understand that today "that" opens restrictive clauses and "which" does not open one. However, I have seen "which" used in older works where follows a clearly restrictive clause.

For instance,

“That is a question which Mr. Darcy only can answer.”

"The disasters which befel Jones on his departure for Coventry; ..."

What was then the difference between the two words?

  • 8
    You understand incorrectly. Which (or who) can introduce restrictive relative clauses, and so can that. Only wh-words can introduce non-restrictive relative clauses, however. Whoever told you that zombie rule did not understand English grammar, but was just passing on what they were taught incorrectly, too. – John Lawler Mar 24 '17 at 20:35
  • 1
    It's not just in older works. Many speakers today use "which" restrictively. A pattern that actually is rarely seen nowadays and used to be somewhat common is using "that" in non-restrictive relative clauses. – herisson Mar 25 '17 at 0:41
  • Further evidence comes from Franklin D Roosevelt's quote about the day of the 1941 Pearl Harbour attack: "a date which will live in infamy". Going further back, the King James Bible, 1611: "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's". – BillJ Mar 25 '17 at 8:47
  • 1
    Look at this blog post for the history of this "rule". – Peter Shor Mar 25 '17 at 15:38
1

The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS16) ends 6.22 with this:

Although which can be substituted for that in a restrictive clause (a common practice in British English), many writers preserve the distinction between restrictive that (with no commas) and nonrestrictive which (with commas). See also 5.220 under that; which.

Bryan Garner says of the distinction: “It enhances clarity. And the best American editors follow it.”

If you follow the link above and click through to the cited passage – and maybe go up a bit – you can see that Garner is clearly not happy with how “British writers have utterly bollixed the distinction between restrictive and nonrestrictive relative pronouns.”

Back to CMOS16:

In British English, writers and editors seldom observe the distinction between the two words. See also 6.22.

That was from 5.220 under that; which.

The question is: What is the difference between the two words?

For the usage at issue, in general there is no difference. But in “polished American prose” (CMOS16/5.220) – there is.

That said, check out Which Hunting – thanks to @PeterShor for the reference – especially this:

In my research for my thesis, I’ve found that changing “which” to “that” is the single most frequent usage change that copy editors make. If so many writers either don’t know the rule or can’t apply it consistently, it stands to reason that most readers don’t know it either and thus won’t notice the difference. Some editors and grammarians might take this as a challenge to better educate the populace on the alleged usefulness of the rule, but I take it as evidence that it’s just not useful.

In other words, copy editors apply the so-called rule consistently to make sure “polished American prose” is what gets published. Almost no one else notices. Or cares much if they do.

| improve this answer | |
1

This 1888 grammar at Google books makes no mention of restrictive versus nonrestructive clauses in its discussion of relative pronouns. And in fact, it gives as an examples several sentences where which heads a restrictive clause, e.g.,

Letters which are improperly addressed go to the dead-letter office.

The only difference between which/who/whom and that it gives is:

Use that (rather than who or which) after a superlative expression.

So you shouldn't say *the greatest man who ever lived; you need to use that and not who.

Google Ngrams shows some support for this rule in 19th century usage.

| improve this answer | |

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

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