That vs Which: A Pragmatic Approach

2012-10-01 by . 6 comments

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 “There’s glory for you!”

H. Dumpty, founder of linguistic pragmatics

If you’re looking for a balanced discussion of the  That vs Who/whom/whose/which controversy, go here. I’m not interested.

A hundred years ago the Fowlers put forward a modest proposal. Linguistic bureaucrats elevated this proposal to a Rule, linguistic libertarians resisted; and today the Fowlers’ proposal is an Issue hotly contested by Conservative and Liberal ideologues.

I have no taste for political disputation. While my sympathies lie with the Liberals (who in the Fowlers’ day would have been the Reactionaries), my experience is that I am never profoundly disturbed by the actual usage of the Conservatives (who a hundred years ago were the Radicals). And neither side is going to budge from its position, each is deaf to the other’s arguments and writes or redacts according to its own judgment; so I see little point in rehashing the arguments.

I’d like instead to adopt a non-partisan and non-ideological approach, and come at the T/W question from a different angle. I’m a writer, my concern is to make the most effective use I can of the tools which come to my hand. The Fowlers themselves grounded their proposal in the economic argument that “if we are to be at the expense of maintaining two different relatives, we may as well give each of them definite work to do (The King’s English, 1908).” I may hope, then, that others will find some value in exploring the pragmatic and non-doctrinal considerations which govern my usage in my writing.

“Writing”, I say; but the spoken language is both historically and methodologically prior to the written, and most of us aspire to something of the spontaneity and freshness presumed to reside in oral usage; so it may be useful to see what ordinary speech tells us.

I happen to possess a modest corpus of semiformal speech—videotapes of impromptu interviews with a dozen college-educated U.S. speakers from various regions and callings. Scanning the transcripts for uses of relative pronouns (and consulting the tapes where there was any ambiguity) yielded three interesting findings:

  1. Ordinary U.S. speech does not distinguish lexically between restrictive and non-restrictive clauses. Indeed, the paratactic construction imposed by improvisation makes the distinction itself difficult to maintain. How do you categorize a clause which is clearly, to the ear, an afterthought, but which could make sense as a restrictive clause? —Here’s an example; the speaker is discussing a table of numbers (a dash represents a pause):
 The difference between 154?—(points) that is actually available?—and  and the 149—(points) which the budgeting exercise produced?— is another opportunity for life insurance . . .
  1. All the W forms are very rare: that is absolutely predominant by at least fifty to one. If the W forms disappeared from the spoken language they would never be missed.
  2. Again and again I heard that after a clause followed by a pause (and sometimes repetitions of that)—and then the speaker settled on what he was going to say—which might be a relative clause (restrictive or not), an adverbial clause, or a clause to which that was entirely irrelevant.

So—should the written language follow Liberal logic, and abandon the W forms altogether?

Of course not. No craftsman forsakes the use of a tool simply because amateurs do not use it. Finding 3. above is instructive: speakers prefer that because it’s the all-purpose tool, adequate in all circumstances. But the writer has an entire workbench of specialized tools, and leisure to choose between them.

Should we then unite behind the Conservatives, and use T and W to distinguish restrictive and non-restrictive clauses?

Again, I think not. The usage is not distinctive either for the ordinary reader or for many of the ideologues. And it is redundant: all of us distinguish these clause-types by means of the comma. The T/W distinction is unnecessary here.

Let’s instead use the W forms where they’re most useful: in any relative clause. The W distinctions, between who, whom, whose and which, allow us to signal reference and syntax more clearly and more smoothly. When it can be done gracefully, omit the relative pronoun altogether; but let’s use that as a relative pronoun only under pressure of what the Fowlers call “considerations of euphony”.

This not only exploits the W distinctions more fully, it makes that more effective and efficient, too. that is horribly overworked: it takes 17 columns in the OED to discriminate its uses. No word except to is more likely to appear multiple times in a sentence with different meanings. As Dumpty noted, that comes at a cost: no word is more likely to confuse the reader’s eye and mind.

I have for thirty-five years avoided the use of that as a relative pronoun. I use W forms almost exclusively, in all contexts: marketing copy, stage plays, voiceovers, business proposals, legal drafts, training videos, my doctoral dissertation.

And you know what?—I’ve never been called out for it. Not by clients—not by actors—not by academics.

I commend this approach to your consideration.

“Impenetrability! That’s what I say!”



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  • cerberus says:

    Great post. I’m not sure I agree with your position, but it is very well written. It is indeed striking how you don’t use relative that at all in your post, and only once or twice did I really notice. Question: when you use restrictive which in a text that is not supposed to sound formal at all, aren’t you sometimes a bit worried about the impression of formality that which may give?

    • StoneyB says:

      Thanks for the kind words. In informal texts the problem doesn’t arise as often as you might think. It’s not a problem at all when you’re writing for what’s called “voice talent” in the trade; making it natural is what they do. As for naturalistic dialogue: relative clauses are pretty infrequent in actual speech. Relative pronouns in the objective are usually dropped: people tend to say “This girl I met” rather than “This girl that I met”. And because speech is inherently paratactic, “The guy that/who runs the store on Dorsett” is at least as likely to come out “The guy, he runs the store …” or just “The guy, runs the store … “. In fact, about the only time I use relative that is when I’m trying to mark the character as making an effort to be more formal and hypotactic–that’s when relative clauses and “that” come into play, as in my point 3.

  • Milton says:

    “Which” informs, “that” defines. Some sensible explanations:

  • StoneyB says:

    As I said, that’s not a fight I’m interested in any more. And I’ll have no problem if you write to that rule. But it’s not my rule.

  • cerberus says:

    Okay, interesting. I suppose relative pronounce are much rarer in English than in most other languages I know. Participle can also serve to replace relative clauses in some cases, notably where the antecedent is the subject, which is when one cannot leave out that.

  • Lazarus says:

    Rejecting grammatical structure that has evolved as part of the language, because of shallow preference, or laziness, is a terrible argument.

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