Author Topic: It’s time to get a more solid grasp of the usage of "that" and “which”  (Read 6999 times)

Joe Carillo

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Does the choice between “that” and “which” to link relative clauses still make your head spin? Try this one: “The charming beach resort (that, which) we used to visit in summer is now in shambles.” A little unsure or thoroughly baffled?

Either way, you are definitely not alone in your predicament. Uncertainty or downright confusion in using the relative pronouns is endemic not only among English students and teachers but also among professional writers in media and in the business sector. Indeed, after seeing so many instances of misuse of “which” and “there” in both unpublished and published writing over the years, I came to the conclusion that relative pronoun usage is an aspect of English grammar that wasn’t—and perhaps still isn’t—being taught and learned adequately in our school system.    

It was for this reason that I wrote a three-part essay, “Getting to know the relative clauses better,” in 2008 for  my weekly English-usage column in The Manila Times. I am sure that the extensive discussion of the subject will make Forum members, like the readers of my column then, much better equipped in handling relative pronouns and complex sentences. I am therefore posting the three essays altogether now in this week’s edition of the Forum. (November 17, 2013)

Getting to know the relative clauses better – I

One of the most common mistakes I encounter in my work as copyeditor and writing consultant is the misuse of the relative pronouns. Not a few of the manuscripts I edit often embarrassingly fumble or stumble when using “who,” “which,” or “that” to relate a qualifying clause to an antecedent noun in the sentence. And I must admit that early in my writing career, I used to get pretty mixed up with the relative pronouns myself. Simply on gut feel, I would indiscriminately use “which” and “that” to announce my relative clauses, so I can imagine that my grammar then was probably correct no more than 50 percent of the time.

I can see now that I got into this predicament largely because in my youth, I read a lot of novels by British authors. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy them or profit from them in terms of getting a better grasp of the English language, but as I was to find out to my consternation many years later, British English uses “which” and “that” in practically the opposite way American English does.

So I think it’s high time we did a full-dress review once more of the relative pronouns. We’ll do it specifically in the American English standard, which is the standard being used in the Philippines.

The relative pronouns are, of course, “who,” “which,” “that,” “whom,” “whoever,” “whomever,” “whatever,” and “whichever.” Each of them serves to relate a dependent or subordinate clause to an antecedent noun in a sentence, which can either be the subject or object of that dependent clause. And taken together, the relative pronoun and the dependent clause it introduces constitute what is called a relative clause.

Let’s examine this sentence that has a relative clause attached to it: “People who complain loudest about a problem often don’t do anything to solve it.” Here, the relative clause is “who complain loudest about a problem” and “who” is the relative pronoun that relates it to the antecedent noun “people,” which is the subject of the sentence. What the relative clause does here is to specify the particular people being written about; functionally, it provides additional information about the antecedent noun so the reader can understand the context of the statement better.

Now, in English, the choice of relative pronoun depends on two things: (1) whether the additional information being given is essential or not essential to the understanding of the idea or context of the main clause; and (2) whether the antecedent noun is a person or an animal or inanimate object. Either way, however, the relative pronoun can function as a subject or an object or can take its possessive form.

At any rate, a relative clause that provides essential information to the main clause is what is known as a defining or restrictive relative clause, as in the example we looked at earlier: “People who complain loudest about a problem often don’t do anything to solve it.” Here, the relative clause “who complain loudest about a problem” can’t be taken out from the sentence, for to do so will seriously change the meaning of what’s being said. Indeed, if we drop that relative clause, we would end up with “People don’t do anything to solve [a problem]”—a sentence that unreasonably and illogically generalizes on human behavior.

On the other hand, when the information in the relative clause is not essential to the idea or context of the main clause, we have what is called a nondefining or nonrestrictive relative clause. In such cases, a comma is normally needed to separate the relative clause from the main clause, as in this sentence: “The company decided to fire its legal counsel, who bungled the court filings in a crucial corporate dispute.” Here, the main clause can stand even without the relative clause. (September 20, 2008)

We’ll continue this discussion in Part II.
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From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, September 20, 2008 © 2008 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

Getting to know the relative clauses better – II

In Part I of this essay, we discussed the difference between the two kinds of relative clauses: a defining or restrictive relative clause provides essential information to the main clause of a sentence, while a nondefining or nonrestrictive relative clause provides information not essential to the idea or context of the main clause. We then saw that when the antecedent noun is a person, a defining relative clause is inseparably linked to the main clause by the relative pronoun “who,” as in “Young people who spend too much time playing computer games tend to have very short attention spans.” A nondefining relative clause is similarly introduced by the relative pronoun “who,” but it must always be set apart from the main clause by a pair of commas, as in “The great Jose Rizal, who has been called ‘The Pride of the Malay Race,’ was actually of Chinese ancestry.” Those commas indicate that the main clause can stand even without the relative clause.

(Again, to get a surer feel of the difference between a defining clause and a nondefining clause, see what happens when we drop the relative clauses from each of the examples above: “Young people […] tend to have very short attention spans.” “The great Jose Rizal […] was actually of Chinese ancestry.” With the relative clause gone in the first sentence, the statement has become too overgeneralized to be true; in contrast, even without the relative clause, the second statement remains perfectly valid.)

So far, though, we have only discussed the use of relative pronouns when persons are the antecedent subjects. When the subject is an animal, a place, an inanimate object, or a concept, we can no longer use the relative pronoun “who” to link the relative clause to its antecedent subject. Instead, we use either the relative pronouns “that” or “which” depending on the kind of relative clause we are using in the sentence.

In American English specifically, we use “that” to link a defining or restrictive clause to a nonhuman antecedent subject, as in the following examples: “The Siamese cat that our father found on a street gutter a year ago became the family’s favorite pet.” “The tree house that the Sanchez brothers built during their teens was gone.” “The great idea that was propounded by the neophyte legislator got mangled due to too much politicking.” In these sentences, the relative clause is crucial to understanding the idea or context of the main clause; dropping the relative clause can seriously alter the import of—or significantly detract from—the intended meaning: “The Siamese cat became the family’s favorite pet.” “The tree house […] was gone.” “The great idea […] got mangled due to too much politicking.”

On the other hand, we use the relative pronoun “which” to link a nondefining or nonrestrictive clause to a nonhuman antecedent subject, as in the following examples: “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which was written by the British historian Edward Gibbon in the 18th century, has been hailed as one the greatest historical works produced by Western man.” “A subspecies of the chevrotain, which is also known as the mouse deer, is indigenous to Palawan and nearby islands.” The pair of enclosing commas is mandatory in such constructions; it sets the relative clause apart from the main clause and indicates that the relative clause is not essential to the idea of the main clause.

Indeed, when the relative clauses are dropped from such sentences, we will find that the main clauses can very well stand by themselves: “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire […] has been hailed as one the greatest historical works produced by Western man.” “A subspecies of the chevrotain […] is indigenous to Palawan and nearby islands.”

In Part III of this essay, we will discuss how the American English usage of the relative clauses differs from that of British English and how we can streamline sentence constructions that use relative clauses. (September 27, 2008)
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From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, September 27, 2008 © 2008 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

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 nondefining 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.
« Last Edit: November 17, 2013, 03:36:06 PM by Joe Carillo »