A minor spat about the use of which and that in relative clauses
The standard rule for relative pronouns as taught in EFL books
- For people:
- - The boy who is climbing the tree is my son.
- or The boy that is climbing the tree is my son.
- For things:
- - The car which is coming up the hill is my father's.
- or The car that is coming up the hill is my father's.
- - My son, who loves climbing trees, is the one in the blue jumper.
- - That red sports car, which can go incredibly fast, is my father's.
A little history - or how a suggestion became (for some) a cast-iron rule.
In steps The Guardian
A couple of observations:
- Most importantly, while using or omitting commas correctly in his examples, the author only mentions them very briefly rather than saying clearly that the use (or not) of commas is the main distinguishing feature (apart from context) between defining and non-defining clauses in writing, rather than the use of that or which.
- He doesn't address the question of who for persons. If it is so important to use different pronouns for things in defining and non-defining clauses to avoid ambiguity, why not for people. Perhaps we should also specify that for people in defining clauses. But the same commentators who insist on that for things, are often against the use of that for people. So their argument is not very consistent.
The Guardian Style Guide
- This is the house that Jack built; but this house, which John built, is falling down.
- The Guardian, which I read every day, is the paper that I admire above all others.
- I am very proud of the sunflowers that I grew from seed. (some of the sunflowers)
- I am very proud of the sunflowers, which I grew from seed. (all the sunflowers)
How two contemporary style guides see it
Links to linguistics blogs etc
- Arrant Pedantry - Click on his second diagram for a useful table of relative pronoun use. (Careful, the first diagram is the prescriptive approach)
- Sentence First - Very readable at the beginning, with a good introduction to the different type of relative clause. Goes into a lot of detail later.
- Arnold Zwicky
- Language Log - Geoffrey K. Pullum
- Arnold Zwicky - List of articles at Language Log
- Fowler - at Google Books
- Fowler - The King's English - at Bartleby Books