X v Y: Which witch? That witch?

Continuing Glosso’s series of “X v Y”, here’s a look at the difference between that and which.

Many people don’t understand the difference between “that” and “which”, which aren’t interchangeable as is commonly thought. “That”, which isn’t preceded by a comma, qualifies or identifies the noun preceding it, pinpointing which one of two or more nouns is being referred to. “Which”, which is preceded by a comma (at least in this clausal context), simply adds extra but non-identifying information about the preceding noun. A good rule of thumb is this: if the that/which clause can be taken away and you still understand the reference, it must be a which. If you take it away and you’re unsure about which one it is, it must be a that.

Rich and Pat are at the fair, which has a game that gives witches as prizes.

“I want that witch!” says Rich. “Which witch?” says Pat. “The witch that has a green hat?” asks Pat. “No, the witch that wears the black hat, which is flat,” says Rich.  “I want that witch that has a black hat, which witches wear.” “Oh,” says Pat. “That witch.” “Give us a bob, Pat,” says Rich.

First posted March 2011.


6 thoughts on “X v Y: Which witch? That witch?

  1. Barrie England

    You seem to support the view that only ‘that’, rather than ‘wh-’ relative pronouns, should be used in defining relative clauses (the ones without the commas, sometimes called restrictive). That view requires us to say, for example, ‘The hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world’ and not ‘The hand which rocks the cradle is the hand which rules the world’. Discussion of the point goes back at least as far as Fowler (1926), who thought that, ideally, ‘that’ should be reserved for defining and ‘which’ for non-defining relative clauses, and he is supported by the ‘Chicago Manual of Style’.

    However, corpus data shows that ‘which’ is more frequent in defining relative clauses than it is in non-defining ones in all kinds of writing. In ‘The Cambridge Guide to English Usage’, Pam Peters suggests that the choice may be a matter of style and convenience, while the authors of ‘The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language’ (Huddleston and Pullum) go further in saying that ‘integrated relatives with “which” are grammatical in all varieties of English, and the notion that there is something wrong with them is just an invention of presriptivists.’ (Huddleston and Pullum use the terms ‘integrated’ and ‘supplementary’ in place of ‘defining’ and ‘non-defining’. These seem to be more accurate and it would be good if they caught on.)

  2. Robin Fairlie

    Let me take Louise’s sentence: “No, the witch that wears the black hat, which is flat.” The clause “which is flat” is, as the sentence is written, non-defining, and therefore meets the rules enunciated by Louise. If, however, we remove the comma before “which”, then immediately the clause becomes defining – i.e. there is now an implication that there are, in this context, some black hats which (or that) are not flat. To insist that in such case we must alter this “which” to “that” seems to me the merest pedantry, producing no gain.

    Surely the only serious point of grammatical rules (and indeed of punctuation, as in this instance) is to ensure that what one writes (or says) is understandable, with minimum effort, not ambiguous, and preferably euphonious. Trying to enforce recondite “rules” about “that” and “which” in contexts that (or which) do not offend against any of these criteria, is, in my submission, otiose.

    1. Louise Post author

      Hi Robin,

      I do understand your points, but I think it’s worth pointing out that what you say might be true for a British-English eye or ear, but not for an American’s. It’s not even a case of ambiguity or pedantry, but simply of usage and what a Brit or an American would actually write or say. I think the example I gave on my dad’s blog illustrates this quite well.

      Let’s assume I’m giving a report to a friend on the village’s annual pie contest. I declare that “of all the pies in the room, the only one I liked was the apple pie, which my mom made.” (All Americans would understand, with absolutely no ambiguity, that there was just one apple pie, and my mom happened to have made it.) Now your argument is that a Brit could just as easily say: “Of all the pies in the room, the only one I liked was the apple pie which my mom made.” An American would simply never say or write sentence — especially if they were specifying that it was only my mom’s pie that I liked: they would always and only ever use the word “that” to clarify that it was only the one pie (that my mom made) that I liked. But you’re arguing that “which” – in this example – sounds no different from “that”, and therefore it’s pedantic to argue for one over the other. My point is that it DOES sound different to an American: we wouldn’t use “which” in that context – without a comma or pause to indicate that it’s not an identifying clause. So I’m actually making an observation here rather than a rule: that there is a distinction in usage that Americans follow and adhere to strictly, but British-English speakers don’t do the same any more.

  3. Louise Post author

    (This is the comment I posted on my father’s blog, with reference to a “that/which” discussion there: http://www.barder.com/4383/comment-page-1#comment-206086)

    Sorry to keep this “which/that” conversation going, but I’ve been thinking about it over the past few days, and it seems to me that there’s a little bit of hypocrisy going on, where people are on the one hand condemning common mistakes or misusage – even if the meaning is completely unambiguous – by pointing to a prescriptive set of established usage rules, and yet on the other hand they’re trying to dismiss as ‘pedantic’ a usage rule that really does introduce clarity and prevent misunderstandings or ambiguity, probably because (dare I suggest) they don’t really understand the usage rule.

    Take a look at the following sentences and tell me which is/are ambiguous and which isn’t/aren’t:

    “Me and her are going to the movies this afternoon.”

    “Who are you giving that cake to? Whomever gets it should eat it right away.”

    “Of all the pies in the competition, I liked only the apple pie which my sister made.”

    The third sentence, incidentally, would almost certainly not have been said or written by an American, precisely because of the possible ambiguity. If there was just one apple pie in the competition, and my sister happened to have made it, an American would put a comma (or a pause, if spoken) after “pie” and use the word “which” (since it would be a non-identifying clause). If there were several apple pies and I liked only the one my sister made, an American would use the word “that” instead of “which”, thus identifying the specific pie I liked. I.e. “I liked only the apple pie that my sister made.”

    Most Brits no longer seem to recognize this difference, and therefore they’re introducing ambiguity – and possible misunderstanding – by using “that” and “which” interchangeably. The use of commas here is irrelevant or a red herring, in my opinion, since you wouldn’t ever put a comma in front of “that”, because it’s identifying, whereas you would put a comma in front of “which” (in this context), because/when it isn’t.

    That’s probably my last two cents on this subject.

  4. Pingback: An American-British experiment: some interesting results … « Words, Phrases & Expressions « Glossophilia

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