The Great Which Hunt

For decades SNOOTS have been hunting down whiches and replacing them with thats. Whenever a SNOOT discovers the relative pronoun which introducing a restrictive clause, the writer responsible will drop several notches in her esteem. For a SNOOT, knowing which relative pronoun to use is a sign of basic linguistic competence.

In his 1959 revision of William Strunk’s The Elements of Style, EB White urges writers to go "which hunting", improving their work by removing the offending whiches and replacing them with thats. I went looking for my copy of Strunk and White yesterday but I seem to have lost it. I think it’s in a box in the garage but I’m really not sure. I can’t remember the last time I used it.

For years I’ve been breaking the which/that rule and until recently I didn’t even know I was doing it (my copy of Strunk and White is in very good condition). I always had a vague idea that some people are picky about whiches and thats, but I’ve never bothered to find out why. Now I’m wondering whether this something I ought to worry about or if it’s just another snooty amusement.

In a ‘word note‘ for the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus, American writer David Foster Wallace explains the problem:

There is widespread ignorance about how to use that as a relative pronoun, and two common that-errors are so severe that teachers, editors, and other high-end readers will make unkind judgments about you if you commit them. The first is to use which when you need that. Writers who do this usually think the two relative pronouns are interchangeable but that which makes you look smarter. They aren’t, and it doesn’t. For writers, the abstract rule that that introduces restrictive elements and which introduces nonrestrictive elements is probably less helpful than the following simple test: if there needs to be a comma before the relative pronoun, you need which; otherwise, you need that. *Examples: We have a massive SUV that we purchased on credit last month; The massive SUV, which we purchased on credit last month, seats us ten feet above any other driver on the road (pdf).

The second error Wallace discusses is where writers use that when they ought to use who or whom. But that’s an issue for another time.

It’s surprising how many people get worked up about the which vs that issue. Several years ago Megan McArdle devoted a post to the issue on her blog Jane Galt. The post sparked a lively debate. McArdle took a hard line that some commentators greatly appreciated. "God Bless You, Grammar Woman!" wrote one. "Would you please come to my class and help bitchslap some sense into my students?" Others wondered whether there was any point to the rule. "The rule as stated is perfectly cogent," wrote J Falk , "but who has ever been confused by the misusage?"

I know far too little about English grammar to be a proper language nerd, but here are two things I find interesting about this rule. The first is that it doesn’t seem to have much to do with clarity or readability. As McArdle admits, "You will probably not be misunderstood if you misuse this particular rule." And the second is that many well-known writers ignore it. For example, in his essay ‘Politics and the English Language‘ George Orwell writes:

A newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image, while on the other hand a metaphor which is technically "dead" (e.g., iron resolution) has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness (pdf).

But still, the 15th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style is insistent. "In polished American prose, that is used restrictively to narrow a category of identify a particular item being talked about … which is used nonrestrictively–not to narrow a class or identify a particular item but to add something about an item already identified …" (p 230). But the manual also notes that British writers and editors tend to ignore the distinction. In an online Q&A the CMS team seems to soften the position, "Some people use ‘which’ restrictively, which is more or less okay (and popular among writers of British English) as long as no commas are involved …"

After having some of my own whiches hunted down and excised by a copyeditor, I’ve become curious about where this rule comes from. I’m starting to wonder whether I should change the way I write.

According to University of Illinois English professor, Dennis Baron, "In the late nineteenth century, some usage critics sought to neaten things up by limiting that to restrictive clauses, and which to nonrestrictive ones." The Fowler brothers, Henry and Francis, adopted this approach in their 1908 book The King’s English. and Henry continued to pursue it in his 1926 Dictionary of Modern English Usage. After noting that usage evolves more or less independently of the likes and dislikes of grammarians, he wrote:

And yet the temptation to show how better use might have been made of the material to hand is sometimes irresistible. The English relatives, more particularly as used by English rather than American writers, offer such a temptation. The relations between that, who, & which, have come to us from our forefathers as an odd jumble, & plainly show that the language has not been neatly constructed by a master-builder who could create each part to do the exact work required of it, neither overlapped nor overlapping ; far from that, its parts have had to grow as they could.

After criticising the idea that which could be used as a more literary substitute for that in restrictive clauses, he stipulated that:

The two kinds of relative clause, to one of which that & to the other of which which is appropriate, are the defining {restrictive] & the non-defining [non-restrictive]; & if writers would agree to regard that as the defining relative pronoun, & which as the non-defining, there would be much gain both in lucidity & in ease. Some there are who follow this principle now ; but it would be idle to pretend that it is the practice either of most or of the best writers.

At the time it was published, most reviewers were impressed but not all were convinced. American academic Kemp Malone, for example, declared that "At bottom his book is unsound. It gives us the conclusions of a learned and charming dilettante rather than a man of science. It is a collection of linguistic prejudices persuasively presented by a clever advocate ; it is not an objective presentation of the facts of English language." But few of Fowler’s readers wanted a description of the English language. What most wanted was a book that told them how to write English correctly.

Dennis Baron credits Fowler with single-handedly inventing "the difference between that and which and convinced thousands of copy editors that Druids had carved it on an ancient pillar at Stonehenge." It’s difficult to know whether American enthusiasm for the distinction is solely due to Fowler’s book but by the late 1940s readability guru Rudolf Flesch was citing Fowler and arguing that "The use of which instead of that has been dragged into the language by the writers, the literati, the clerks." It was precisely because that was more common in ordinary spoken English, that Flesch regarded it as preferable to which.

According to Flesch, when authors find out about the distinction "it is often a real revelation to them and they turn into determined which-hunters and that-fans." Which-hunting, he writes, can be "a pleasant and rewarding indoor sport."

When EB White revised William Strunk’s pocket guide, The Elements of Style, he too promoted the sport of which-hunting. White instructed readers that "it would be a convenience to all if these two pronouns were used with precision. The careful writer, watching for small conveniences, goes which-hunting, removes the defining whiches, and by so doing improves his work." Strunk and White is gospel for a generation of American prescriptivists.

Curiously, many SNOOTs ignore Strunk and White’s advice on readability.David Foster Wallace, for example, loved to bury readers in jargon, acronyms, difficult words and pages of footnotes in impossibly small print. As Karla Starr writes, "The Elements of Style has been considered the de facto usage and style bible for more than 80 years. And yet, our preeminent American stylist naysays many of its rules."

Arcane distinctions and complicated rules are the things that enable English usage to become a competitive sport. SNOOTs like Wallace don’t want to reform English to make it more effective for communication — they want to use it to compete with other SNOOTs. In an essay on Democracy, English, and the Wars over Usage, Wallace wrote:

In my own case, my mom is a Comp teacher and has written remedial usage books and is a SNOOT of the most rabid and intractable sort. At least part of the reason I am a SNOOT is that for years Mom brainwashed us in all sorts of subtle ways. Here’s an example. Family suppers often involved a game: If one of us children made a usage error. Mom would pretend to have a coughing fit that would go on and on until the relevant child had identified the relevant error and corrected it. It was all very self-ironic and lighthearted; but still, looking back, it seems a bit excessive to pretend that your child is actually denying you oxygen by speaking incorrectly. But the really chilling thing is that I now sometimes find myself playing this same "game" with my own students, complete with pretend pertussion.

So what should we say about which-hunting? Is it pedantry, an annoying Americanism, an enjoyable sport or sign of linguistic competence?

Note: In September this year David Foster Wallace ended his own life. He was 46.

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14 Responses to The Great Which Hunt

  1. Gummo Trotsky says:

    So what should we say about which-hunting? Is it pedantry, an annoying Americanism, an enjoyable sport or sign of linguistic competence?

    Pedantry, an annoying Americanism and a sign of intellectual snobbery (but not linguistic competence – precisely the opposite in fact).

  2. conrad says:

    I’ve been using that for years — not because I think it is worthwhile, but because the Microsoft grammar checker picks it up and tells too.

    Geoff Pullum has a few comments on it, and I’m sure he knows more about that type of stuff than almost everyone. You’ll enjoy what he calls the Elements of Style.

  3. NPOV says:

    Don, can you give me an example of where you might use ‘which’ for a restrictive clause?

    This article has some, but they seem to be very particular cases – and I would still find ‘that’ more comfortable in all 3 examples: their last example sounds a bit contrived either way, but I would prefer “What was that book that John mentioned last night?” over “What was that book which John mentioned last night?”.

  4. Mike Pepperday says:

    That is a popular word. I use which for variety, when that has been worked hard.

    I have no patience for the MS grammar checker but Fowler is delightful. Rules are made to be broken (a) if you know the rule and (b) if it improves clarity or readability.

  5. NPOV says:

    Of course there’s always the Biblical “I will seek that which was lost etc.”, where I can’t believe anyone would insist on double ‘thats’ (although of course double ‘that’ is fairly common in English).

  6. Don Arthur says:

    I turned off Word’s grammar checker. Maybe that’s why I stopped worrying about my wicked whiches.

    Conrad – Re: Pullum on EoS. I’m trying to visualise a suppurating sentence.

    NPOV – I almost wrote “What most wanted was a book which told them how to write English correctly.”

    The King James Bible is infested with whiches. For example: “Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.”

    I imagine that the Bible was the standard counter-example to the rule. Perhaps this is why the which hunters accuse their enemies of pretentiousness. Instead of admitting that the language of the King James Version is archaic (and getting into a discussion about the way usage changes over time), they say that it is ‘formal’.

    Mike – I agree. Fowler is fun in the same way that Jeremy Clarkson is fun.

    I can’t help imagining a kind of Top Gear for language nerds. Instead of giving the Stig flash cars to race around the track, they’d send out an anonymous editor (the ‘Sic’?) to correct the language on billboards, shop windows and official forms. Then it would be back to the studio to see how the special guest did at a timed editing task — “There you are then, just two seconds behind Shannon Noll.”

    After that, perhaps a spirited panel discussion on split infinitives and a rant about Kevin Rudd’s speeches.

  7. Gummo Trotsky says:

    Better yet, give ‘The Sic’ a Lynne Truss book to correct.

  8. James Farrell says:

    The word pedant is overused. I wouldn’t call someone pedantic for taking care to use which and that correctly in their own writing, or for pointing out the difference to another writer whose standards are high but who might not have noticed it. There’s actually nothing very esoteric about the that/which rule, and you only need to read the SUV example to see that (a) it’s straightforward, and (b) it makes sense. (In fact it was the Word grammer checker that drew my attention to the issue a decade ago, and I was happy to take the tip).

    On the other hand, there’s no point insisting on these things to someone that doesn’t care.

    A pedant by my definition is someone who’s more interested in the form than the content of any given sentence. Someone who, when told by his child, ‘these guys beat Dave and I up’, will wince not at the news itself but at the grammatical error.

    An even more annoying phenomenon is the self-proclaimed or would-be pedant — the type who loves to complain about split infinitives and sentences ending in prepositions, but lacks any capacity to judge the nuances of the case.

  9. NPOV says:

    I’d have to say Don, with your example, I still find “that” more natural (and just “book telling them how” even more natural still). Thinking about it more, I’d say a good rule is “never use ‘which’ when you could leave out the relative pronoun entirely”. So,

    “What most wanted was the book which the teacher recommended”

    sounds positively awkward to me – and I suspect it’s because you don’t need either ‘which’ or ‘that’ for it to be grammatical. In your example a relative pronoun is required, so using ‘which’ is probably OK.

    But even that’s not enough, because, for instance, surely nobody would say “People which smoke have a high risk of cancer” – despite the relative pronoun being required. So I honestly don’t think there is a good simple rule as to when “which” can be used, but given that “that” is always OK, I can see why some would prefer a rule that says to never use “which”.

  10. NPOV says:

    Don, I’m not so sure the Lord’s Prayer is an example of a restrictive clause – it depends whether you interpret it as:

    “Our Father, who is in heaven, has a hallowed name”


    “Our Father that is in heaven has a hallowed name” (as opposed to some other Father that isn’t in heaven!).

    I would think the former, but in modern English you’d never use ‘which’ when referring to a person (other than perhaps a baby, where the impersonal pronoun is occasionally used).

  11. Don Arthur says:

    NPOV – Could we rewrite it as “Our father in heaven”?

    Another earlier translation (Wycliffe’s) has:

    Our Father that art in heavens, hallowed be thy name;

    What do you think?

  12. NPOV says:

    Well it could be rewritten any number of ways! I’m certainly not qualified to comment on the degree to which the original Greek meaning is kept.
    However the King James version appears online both with and without a comma after “Our Father” (the Wikipedia article has it with a comma), so I stand by my claim that the King James author probably intended it as a nonrestrictive clause.

  13. Don Arthur says:

    NPOV – On your earlier point about whether ‘which’ can be applied to a person — even here 19th century British and American grammarians sometimes disagreed.

    In an 1858 text, Goold Brown discusses the use of ‘which’ to refer to persons as in “Our father which art in heaven”. He complains that some:

    British critics, still preferring the archaism, have accused ” The Americans” of “poor criticism,” in that they “have changed which into who, as being more consonant to the rules of Grammar.” Falsely imagining, that which and who, with the same antecedent, can be of different genders, they allege, that, “Tho use of the neuter pronoun carried with it a certain vagueness and sublimity, not inappropriate in reminding us that our worship is addressed to a Being, infinite, and superior to all distinctions applicable to material objects.” -Men and Manners in America : quoted and endorsed by the REV. MATT. HARRISON, in his treatise on the English Language, p. 191. This is all fancy; and, in my opinion, absurd.

    In the 19th century grammarians found it difficult to agree about the use of ‘which’ to refer to God. Cobbett called it an error while James Roscoe Mongan wrote that it was accurate and, according to some, more reverential.

  14. NPOV says:

    It seems to me they disagreed over whether God was a “person” rather than whether “which” can be applied to a person! But I doubt anyone these days would use “which” with “God”. In fact, whether to use “which” or “who” seems to exactly correlate with whether to use “it” or “he/she”.

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