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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
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    @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
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    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
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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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    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
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    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
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    ShreevatsaR is correct. Here is the relevant page in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. – nohat Oct 8 '10 at 5:31
  • Of course, the Language Log is silly too; if editors at some publication do want to enforce this strange convention (and some do), it's perfectly their prerogative to do so; Geoffrey Pullum acts like a silly "grammar nazi" in the sense of insisting that grammar must be the only thing that ever decides what gets used. – ShreevatsaR Oct 8 '10 at 5:31
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What the other answers have said about "which" having to be used with commas (or in non-restrictive clauses) is wrong. "Which" has long been used by respectable writers in restrictive clauses as well. And when it's used in a restrictive clause, it's wrong to use a comma before it. There's a separate question about this: When to use “that” and when to use “which”?

Consider the bear which scratches his head.

This sentence does sound wrong, but for another reason. "Which," whether used restrictively or nonrestrictively, has a strong tendency to be used with inanimates. For this reason, "which... his" sounds bad, because "which" implies you're thinking of the bear as an object, or at least as a not-very-animate thing, while "his" implies you're thinking of the bear as a person, or at least as a somewhat animate being. "Consider the bear who scratches his head" would be better, or, as the other answers mentioned, you could use "that" and say "Consider the bear that scratches his head." (In general, "that" is not as common as "who" when referring to people, but either is grammatical.)

ShreevatsaR in a comment mentioned a third option, "the bear which scratches its head." This doesn't sound as clashingly bad to me as "which scratches his head," but it also doesn't sound as good to me as any of the alternatives I listed in the previous paragraph.

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

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