That and which

timetableWhen I read this tweet this morning, I knew that “which” was the wrong relative pronoun and should be replaced by “that”. However, my years of having two hours of English grammar per week are but a distant memory, and I couldn’t quite remember the grammatical rules that govern this particular use of which and that. Being a bit of a grammar geek enthusiast, I thought I’d remind myself how it all works.
It’s all to do with restrictive and non-restrictive relative clauses, of course! Restrictive relative clauses contain essential information, without which the sentence doesn’t make sense, and they can be introduced by that, which, whose, who or whom.
Example: We have got to clean the stinking swamp that is the House of Lords.
On the other hand, non-restrictive relative clauses give extra information, without which the sentence still makes sense. They can be introduced by which, whose, who or whom, but NOT by that, and should be separated from the main clause by a comma.
Example: We have got to clean out the stinking swamp that is the House of Lords, which is only marginally more repulsive than the House of Commons.

By |2016-10-18T15:48:30+00:00June 3rd, 2013|Technical corner|15 Comments

About the Author:

I am Céline Graciet, a freelance English to French translator. Since 2003 I’ve been writing on all sorts of areas linked to translation and the life of a translator.


  1. Douglas Carnall June 4, 2013 at 2:44 pm

    Great example! Laffin’ out loud here in the Pays de la Loire!
    Speaking as one who learned his English by the traditional method, knee high to Ma and Pa, I am full of admiration for this rule that you claim to know about. It sounds like using it would probably be all right, but I’d like to put in a plea for trying both and seeing which sounds more natural.
    The example tweet from the BBC that you pick on jars my ear only very slightly. Most native speakers wouldn’t sweat the distinction too much in spoken language, and, happily, in English, speech does guide, as far as possible, the written form—in stark contradiction to the French.
    Still, however you look at it, they missed one trick in that tweet: ‘that’ indubitably saves a precious character over ‘which’: a non-negligible 0.7% saving! And see how the colon let me leave either out?
    Anyway, this is all a storm in a teacup, because, that or which, there is absolutely no doubt at all what is meant.
    (Waiting, helpless, for the crushing comment citing an example where munging the difference led to 45 deaths and a $72bn lawsuit…)

  2. céline June 4, 2013 at 3:35 pm

    Greeting, Pays de la Loire! Don’t get me wrong, I’m certainly not against breaking a little rule now and then, and you will notice that I didn’t pillory the author of the tweet, as to me, communication comes first and foremost. No “storm in a teacup” here. Just a little note that to my foreign ear, “which” sounds horribly, decidedly, unequivocally wrong in this sentence, and a little exploration as to why. It sounds like the answer may lie within the foreigner that I am, who learnt English in books and on school benches rather than absorbing it from day one.

  3. Adrian Morgan June 4, 2013 at 4:17 pm

    As you say, restrictive clauses can be introduced with either “that” or “which”, so there’s nothing grammatically (or stylistically) wrong with the tweeted sentence.
    In fact, one could make a case that “which” is the better choice. It’s a “heavier” word than “that”, and more strongly punctuates the gap between the metaphorical and actual referents. This may make the reader dwell on the image of the swamp for a moment longer.

  4. céline June 4, 2013 at 5:28 pm

    You know, I’ve often said that the quality of a blog is best assessed by the quality of its comments, and you two have done me proud by unravelling my argument, because indeed, it is illogical as it is presented.
    However, I have found several references to disputes related to the use of “which” and “that” in restrictive and non-restrictive clauses, including in Wikipedia and on a University website:
    “When choosing between “that” and “which,” use “that” to introduce a restrictive clause and “which” to introduce a nonrestrictive clause. Although some writers use “which” to introduce a restrictive clause, the traditional practice is to use “that” to introduce a restrictive clause and “which” to introduce a nonrestrictive clause. When writing a restrictive clause, do not place a comma before “that.” When writing a nonrestrictive clause, do place a comma before “which”.”
    So it seems like this is a hotly debated grammar topic, but I’ll have learnt one thing: restrictive relative clauses can be introduced by “that” or “which”. I just have to hope that my ears will agree and that “which” will stop sounding so wrong.

  5. Oliver Lawrence June 4, 2013 at 7:21 pm

    I doubt if anyone will object if you stick to the “restrictive > ‘that’ – “non-restrictive > ‘, which'” rule, whereas plenty of people may object to the indiscriminate use of ‘which’ for both types of clause.
    But our clients would, presumably, prefer to have fewer rather than more people object to what they write (or what we write in foreign languages in their name), especially in texts that are trying to be persuasive (marketing, etc.).
    Also, non-native speakers of English may stumble over a text that is ‘flexible’ with the grammar rules that they have had to learn. And stumbling isn’t what we want to encourage in readers to do.
    So I’d still advocate following the rule, in this case.

  6. céline June 5, 2013 at 9:55 am

    Good point, Oliver: in a professional context, following the rules is probably a good insurance and the best way to keep clients happy.

  7. Stan June 5, 2013 at 12:55 pm

    Interesting discussion. For an academic website to advocate the pseudo-rule by reference to “traditional practice” is a bit misleading, because “which” was used with restrictive clauses in impeccable writing for centuries before the distinction was proposed.
    It’s also worth bearing in mind that automatically following the bogus rule can lead to confusion and ambiguity — and has done even in newspaper editorials, as I’ve shown on my language blog.

  8. céline June 5, 2013 at 1:39 pm

    An “academic” website? Wow, I’m honoured, but it’s far from the case; I’d describe it as a place where I share my attempts at raising myself from ignorance, as well as the odd anecdote. And I certainly don’t have the pretension of advocating anything.

  9. Stan June 5, 2013 at 2:18 pm

    An admirable approach, Céline, but I should clarify: I was referring to the Chicago-Kent College of Law web page whose advice on the “traditional rule” you quoted in an earlier comment.

  10. céline June 5, 2013 at 2:27 pm

    Oh I see! Thanks for the clarification. Grammar is fun, isn’t it. You think you know a rule, find a clever-looking website that agrees with you, and then it turns out you’re probably both wrong. Or not, who knows?

  11. Stan June 5, 2013 at 6:47 pm

    Yes, grammar is fun! But I find it’s less fun when writers feel anxious and uncertain because of rules for which there is no real need or grammatical justification.
    For what it’s worth, I wrote at some length about the that/which distinction:

  12. céline June 6, 2013 at 8:31 am

    Fabulous post, Stan. One last thing: for learners of a second language, rules can be comforting and useful as a good GPS when venturing on uncertain territory, as long as one doesn’t get too hung up about getting things slightly wrong, of course.

  13. Stan June 6, 2013 at 9:37 am

    Céline: Yes, I agree – some such rules can be useful guides to learners. I’m just not convinced the that/which rule is any use at all.
    Thanks for your visit and kind comment. It’s been an enjoyable and constructive chat.

  14. Douglas Carnall June 6, 2013 at 9:39 am

    By happy coincidence the excellent David Crystal has just addressed this very question: his magisterial pronouncements leave the rest of us in the shade I fear:
    (tl;dr: prescriptive grammarians have pedantically tried to impose order where variation naturally exists.)

  15. EP June 10, 2013 at 8:27 pm

    And here I thought Congress was the only stinking swamp we had to clean out! <;-)

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