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No, not that

Many years ago, little ones, Henry Fowler made a suggestion that it would be a Good Thing to make a distinction—he loved distinctions—between that and which, reserving which for parenthetical clauses and using that for restrictive or limiting clauses.

Britons, who lightheartedly used which in both respects, continued to do so, but on These Shores the that/which distinction became a minor fetish among copy editors and the dear old, so frequently misguided, Associated Press Stylebook. Early in the course of writing this blog, I attempted a justification of the distinction, for which Geoffrey Pullum applied one of his gentle savagings.* Now I am as lighthearted as any Briton about which

But I still wince when a construction like this lands on the desk: “The accident that took place near the Naval Academy remains under investigation.” There was one accident, Best Beloved, and its location is incidental to the sentence. There was not a spate of accidents compelling us to identify this one by its location.

And I see such nonrestrictive that clauses all the damn time.

So long as you are clear in context, you may indulge in whichery to your little hearts’ content. But stick to that only when you mean to single out one of two or more possibilities.


*No, I am not going to link back to it. Do I look crazy?


**Strike the question.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:05 PM | | Comments (7)


This very topic came up three times in conversation this week. I've had doubt about how to use "whichery". I'm glad to have read this article today!

Out here in the proletariat, the that/which distinction is pretty much gone. I think this another windmill that it's pointless to tilt at/

I think your view of the accident example is sound, but please do re-read Pullum's section on non-defining integrated relatives. If there's a case to be made (and I think there is), it's more subtle than what you've put forth here.

Mr. Cowan is quite right that there are variations, including integrated relatives that do not identify one out of a set of possibilities, as in his example sentence "Martha has two sons she can rely on."

I wasn't attempting a comprehensive overview of relative clauses, but merely supplying a general guideline. In that respect, I was pleased to see in the section you mention that "supplementary [what we previously called non-restrictive] that relatives are extremely rare and only marginally present in Standard English."

I wish all Britons were cheerfully indifferent to that/which. Alas, at The (London) Times, the distinction is fiercely enforced. Fortunately, after so many years working there I have the rule clear at last:

"Always use 'that' except when it's impossible."

That's something I can agree with.

I forgot to add that you certainly do not look crazy: the photographer, whoever he or she may be, has captured your thoughtfulness and subtle humor excellently.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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