When I read essays from Eliot, I find him using "that which" frequently, e.g.

  1. the combination which is the murder of Agamemnon is probably as complex as that which is the voyage of Ulysses.
  2. A very small part of acting is that which takes place on the stage!
  3. They belong to a different race. Their crudity is that which was of the Roman, as compared with the Greek, in real life.

I can kind of guess its usage, but I want to know more about this grammar structure. Searching on Google mostly gave me the simple difference between "that" and "which", and some examples using "that which":

  1. that which we call a rose (from "Romeo and Juliet")
  2. that which we persist in doing

It is a pity that Google search does not direct me to any useful page about "that which". Can someone explicate its grammar for me?

  • 2
    Oh look: it’s more restrictive which. Perhaps the which-hunters will come ’round and change it to that that. :(
    – tchrist
    Commented May 2, 2012 at 4:20
  • 3
    @tchrist, proud to be a which-hunter. For others wanting in on his inside joke. Per Bernstein's "The Careful Writer": "Let it be noted that there are two exceptions to the use of that to introduce a defining clause. One is a situation in which the demonstrative that and the relative that come together, as in this sentence: 'The latent opposition to rearming Germany is as strong as that that has found public expression.' Idiom dictates making it that which. "
    – JLG
    Commented May 2, 2012 at 13:04
  • @tchrist, ..continuing..."The second exception is a situation in which the relative follows a preposition: for example, of which, not of that." (page 446).
    – JLG
    Commented May 2, 2012 at 13:04

3 Answers 3


The combination of that which in the example sentences is fine. The that is a pronoun referring back to a noun phrase and the which is the relative pronoun used for non-animate antecedents. If we expand the shortest of the OP's example sentences to replace the pronoun that with its noun referent, we get:

  • A very small part of acting is acting which takes place on the stage!

We can see a similar (personal) pronoun / relative pronoun combination in:

  • He who hesitates is lost.

"That which" = What

For example;

We feel great admiration and respect for those who gave their lives for this country. Our people will long remember that which they did/ what they did.

  • Succinct and clear!
    – JohnnyQ
    Commented Aug 25, 2021 at 23:20

I agree. In this instance, "what" may be more suitable and "approachable". However, "what" does not, in all instances AND grammatically, take the place of "that which". For example: "That which disturbs me, does not necessarily disturb others." VS: "What disturbs me, does not necessarily disturb others". There IS a difference, albeit subtle. IMHO, the first example is much more eloquent than the second, while still comprehensible.

  • Hello, Jill. Welcome to the crucible that is ELU. In your two examples, I'd omit the commas; the comma is only licensed (and then contentiously) between subject and verb for very heavy subjects. // And I'd say the only difference between your examples is one of register. Commented May 14, 2021 at 16:04

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

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