The Grammarphobia Blog

The whiching hour

Q: I thought I had “that” vs. ”which” nailed down — “that” for restrictive clauses and “which” for nonrestrictive. But I’ve seen the New Yorker, which I revere as a bastion of great writing, use “which” without a comma to introduce a restrictive clause. Is this usage acceptable where it would allow a writer to avoid using one “that” close to another? I’m thinking of a sentence like this: “I told you that the books which I ordered are not available.”

A: You do have the rule nailed down. Rather than stick in an inappropriate “which” to avoid using “that” twice, I’d write, “I told you that the books I ordered are not available.”

For readers of The Grammarphobia Blog who may not be familiar with restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses, let me explain the rule about “that” vs. “which” in nontechnical language.

When you’ve got a clause (a group of words with a subject and a verb) that you could start with “that” or “which,” and you can’t decide between them, here’s a hint: If you can drop the information and not lose the point of the sentence, use “which.” If you can’t drop it, use “that.”

The examples I use in my grammar book Woe Is I are: (1) “Buster’s bulldog, which had one white ear, won best in show.” (2) “The dog that won best in show was Buster’s bulldog.”

In the first example, the information in the “which” clause is not essential. In the second example, the clause starting with “that” is essential; it’s the whole point of the sentence. Also, as you note, “which” clauses are set off with commas, and “that” clauses aren’t.

As for the New Yorker, it doesn’t religiously observe the distinction (maintained at least in American usage) between “that” and “which.” Neither do British publications, a fact you may already have noticed.

As it happens, William Safire, in two “On Language” columns in the New York Times Magazine in 1989, commented on this practice by the New Yorker.

In the first column, Safire wrote that it was easy to find “outright mistakes” in the New Yorker, and he cited this example: “It is only those drugs which are illegal that inspire the present public furor….”

He then explained the rule about “which” and “that” clauses, and added this quote from Strunk and White: “It would be a convenience to all if these two pronouns were used with precision. “

A month later, Safire stuck to his guns despite a challenge from the scholar and critic Jacques Barzun. “Your general principle is right,” Barzun wrote, “which is nondefining and the other defines. But Fowler, who invented the rule, makes clear that following it should not take precedence over other considerations and he mentions euphony.”

I’m with Safire on this one. I think the distinction between “that” and “which” is often an aid to clarity, and clarity in expression is nothing to sneeze at. Using “which” in restrictive clauses can lead to misunderstandings. For example:

(1) “Fran collected books that were scarce in wartime.” (No way to misread this.)

(2) “Fran collected books which were scarce in wartime.” (Did she collect only scarce books, or were all books scarce in wartime? The meaning isn’t clear.)

By the way, Barzun exaggerated when he said Henry Fowler invented the rule for “that” and “which” clauses. Fowler didn’t, though he certainly popularized it.

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