Tuesday, September 8, 2009

That Which . . .

Sharon Wildwind

. . . doesn’t kill us will drive us crazy.

The relative pronouns “that” and “which” have been driving me crazy for a while. Since it’s September and we’re all back in school, one way or another, I decided to brush up on that tiny bit of grammar. Brushing up wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be. Apparently, rules have been in flux for a while. Books printed at different times give different advice. But you still have to understand restrictive and non-restrictive clauses.

Here’s the old version, which was firmer in its world view:
A restrictive clause must be in a sentence. Without it the meaning of the sentence changes. Restrictive clauses begin with “that” and no commas are used.

Suppose we’re discussing my cousin, who retired after being a teaching nun for many years. I say, “The religious order that my cousin joined taught in Chicago and Detroit schools.” Without the restrictive clause, the sentence becomes, “The religious order taught in Chicago and Detroit schools.” If you and I had been talking about my cousin for the past few minutes, you could probably figure out which religious order I meant, but the person just sitting down at our table would ask, “What religious order is that?”

Non-restrictive clauses are nice to know, but not necessary to know, information. They start with which, and are set off by commas.

The Sisters of Passion, which my cousin joined, taught in Chicago and Detroit schools.
The Sisters of Passion taught in Chicago and Detroit schools.

It’s nice to know that my cousin was a member of that order, but not essential to understanding the sentence.

So much for good, old-fashioned dogma. Here are some of suggestions for newer forms of use.

Suggestion #1:
Use the word that sounds best. “That” contains softer, unstressed sounds; “which” contains harder sounds, easier to stress. Think of Raymond Burr as Perry Mason. He’s questioning a recalcitrant witness, and at the proper moment he whirls to face the witness demanding, “This check, which you said you’d never seen, has your initials in the corner.”

Suggestion #2:
It’s dealer’s choice for using “which.” It can be used for both restrictive and non-restrictive clauses, and punctuation is more important than word choice. This tends to be followed more in writing coming from the British Isles.
The dog which my aunt adopted turned out to be valuable. (restrictive clause, essential information, no commas)
The dog, which my aunt adopted, turned out to be valuable. (non-restrictive clause, additional information, commas)

Suggestion #3:
Use “that” for clauses following impersonal constructions, including people who are not specifically named; non-specific pronouns—anything, nothing, something, everything; or superlatives.
Teenagers that work after school reported less trouble falling asleep at night than those who did not work. (If the teenager is named, the proper reflexive pronoun becomes “who.” Tiffany, who works after school, reported less trouble falling asleep at night than her friend, Beth, who did not work.)
Anything that increases attention span is worth trying.
Jerry played the best ragtime piano that I ever heard.

Here’s the sentence construction that started my that/which quest. I know that “that” is necessary when changing from one person to another in a sentence, but I’ve no idea why.

She realized that Alice’s letter must be postmarked today.
Harold bought two tickets so that Delores could accompany him to the concert.

Unfortunately, I never found the reason why behind this. Maybe someone out there knows.

Here’s a few grammar and spelling sites to get us back in the swing of serious writing.
Grammar Book
Plague Words and Phrases (In other words, avoid them like the . . .)
Spelling rules from very basic words on
In case you’d prefer to sing your spelling, try this site. It’s a little hard to navigate: scroll down until you see the names of different songs and click on the one you want to hear. Music only, but if you read the words while listening to the music, it falls into place.


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Interesting subject. I've always instinctively used your suggestion #3, but haven't thought about it at all. It's good to revisit the clause rules.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Sandra Parshall said...

These days a lot of writers eliminate "that" wherever possible. I would write both these sentences without using "that" at all:

She realized Alice’s letter must be postmarked today.
Harold bought two tickets so Delores could accompany him to the concert.

I've seen "which" and "that" used improperly in many published books, so I think copy editors are giving up the battle.