Author Topic: Why it's tough choosing between "that" and "which" to link relative clauses  (Read 9148 times)

Joe Carillo

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Last week, to help Forum members increase their comfort level when dealing with relative pronouns, I posted Part II of “Getting to know the relative clauses better,” a three-part essay that I wrote for  my weekly English-usage column in The Manila Times in 2008. Part II discussed the American English way of using the relative pronouns “that” and “which”: “that” to link a defining or restrictive clause to a nonhuman antecedent subject, and “which” to link a nondefining or nonrestrictive clause to a nonhuman antecedent subject.

This time, in Part III, I explain why exposure to both American English and British English can make it difficult for some English users to choose between “that” and “which” when linking a relative clause to the main clause. It’s because American English and British have different—sometimes exactly opposite—conventions for the use of “that” and “which” when linking a restrictive or nonrestrictive relative clause to the main clause. To avoid choosing the wrong relative pronoun, therefore, we need to make it clear to ourselves which of the two English standards we are using. (April 9, 2011)

Getting to know the relative clauses better – III

A rather sticky point about the relative pronouns “that” and “which” is that their American English usage differs in one important respect from British English usage. Indeed, one who gets heavily exposed to books and periodicals in both English standards—as I had been in my younger days—would experience some difficulty in choosing between “that” and “which” to link relative clauses.

This is because as we saw in Part II of this essay, American English specifically prescribes using “that” to link a defining or restrictive clause to a nonhuman antecedent subject, and restricts the use of “which” to linking a non¬defining or nonrestrictive clause to a nonhuman antecedent subject. In contrast, British English uses “which” to link both defining and nondefining clauses in such situations: a defining “which” when no comma or pair of commas separates it from the relative clause, and a nondefining “which” when a comma or pair of commas (as the case may be) separates it from the relative clause.

In British publications, therefore, we will normally come across “which” used to introduce defining relative clauses, as in this sentence (italicizations mine): “Nevertheless, [Charles Darwin’s] is the version of natural selection which has since been supported by a century and a half of observation and which is now accepted by virtually every scientist on earth.” (“How Darwin won the evolution race” by Robin McKie, The Observer, June 22, 2008). In contrast, American publications normally would use “that” for the two relative clauses in that sentence (italicizations mine): “Nevertheless, [Charles Darwin’s] is the version of natural selection that has since been supported by a century and a half of observation and that is now accepted by virtually every scientist on earth.”

From my recent readings, though, I get the feeling that some British writers—probably due to the strong influence of American media—are no longer entirely averse to using “that” to introduce defining relative clauses. Consider this passage (italicizations mine): “Heather McGregor, a City headhunter, echoes this analysis with the arch observation that ‘the UK bank that has come out of the current crisis strongest is the one that has most aggressively promoted women into positions of senior management: Lloyds TSB.’” (“What caused the crunch? Men and testosterone” by Matthew Syed, The Times-UK, Sept. 30, 2008). I would think that someone writing in British English would have used “which” to introduce the two defining clauses within the quoted material in that sentence: “Heather McGregor, a City headhunter, echoes this analysis with the arch observation that ‘the UK bank which has come out of the current crisis strongest is the one which has most aggressively promoted women into positions of senior management: Lloyds TSB.’”

Now, as I mentioned in my previous column, there’s a way to avoid having to make a choice between “which” and “that” when linking restrictive relative clauses to their antecedent subject: to drop the relative pronoun altogether whenever possible. See how this works in the following sentence: “The charming little beach that we used to visit in summer is now a crowded, high-end resort.” With “that” dropped: “The charming little beach we used to visit in summer is now a crowded, high-end resort.” Another example: “The emergency financial maneuver that was proposed by the chairman was rejected by the company’s stockholders.” With “that” dropped: “The emergency financial maneuver proposed by the chairman was rejected by the company’s stockholders.”

The two “that”-less sentences above are, of course, a form of elliptical construction, which we will recall is a streamlining procedure that makes a sentence more concise and easier to enunciate by omitting words that are obviously understood. This particular construction, though, is advisable only for informal writing and spoken English, and doesn’t work in all cases. In particular, we can’t omit “that” when the relative clause begins with an adverbial phrase, as in this sentence: “The speaker insisted that ultimately the people would suffer from the rejection of the emergency economic measure.”

See what happens when we drop “that”: “The speaker insisted ultimately the people would suffer from the rejection of the emergency economic measure.” The result is a squinting modifier, where the adverb “ultimately” could be understood as modifying either the verb before it or the entire phrase that follows it. (October 4, 2008)
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From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, October 4, 2008 © 2008 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

RELATED READINGS:
It’s time to equip yourself better in handling the relative pronouns
Guideposts for using “who,” “that,” and “which” to link relative clauses
« Last Edit: November 17, 2013, 08:18:16 AM by Joe Carillo »