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"that" vs. "which" - GrammarGasm

Nov. 17th, 2010 11:58 pm "that" vs. "which"

Okay, so I know there are certain accepted rules about when to use the word 'that' versus the word 'which'--rules with which I mostly disagree. I would like some feedback on some of the rules which I believe should be followed, versus the (outdated, imho) rules which are/tend to be followed.

If I remember from my university English 101 course correctly, then the 'that vs. which' rule states, basically: "Use the word 'which' if the clause follows a comma, and use the word 'that' if the clause does not follow a comma."

I, however, believe that the word 'that' is overused. 'That' has come to precede most, if not all clauses not following commas, instead of much more appropriate and relevant words preceding the clauses.

Specifically, instead of using the word "that" to precede clauses which could be considered answers to the questions "Who?", "When?", "Where?", "Why?", "What?", and "How?", the specific words used to precede the clauses should be, respectively, "who(m)", "when", "where", "why", "which", and "how" or "by/in/through/etc which".


The people who [or, 'with whom we'] went to the movie...

The time when [also, 'at which'] we saw the movie...

The place where [also, 'in which'] we saw the movie...

The reason why [also, 'for which'] we were late to the movie...

The movie which we saw..


The way how [also, 'by which'] we traveled to the theatre...

There is more to the complex process which I use to determine which word to use besides the above heuristic, but it is difficult to describe, because I don't fully understand it myself; it usually just comes naturally to me as to which one to use. However, in general, the above heuristic is usually helpful in situations where it is easy to determine whether to use "that" versus "which".

Now, I am inquiring as to your opinions on this partly because I continue to get marked off points on papers I turn in for my (university) courses, for which, in instances such as these, my usage of "which" instead of "that" strikes the graders as incorrect. I want to know if I have any valid basis for arguing with my professors to get those points back...

However, I am inquiring mostly because my usage of "that" vs. "which" differs from the norm very distinctly, and I am curious as to whether my usage is simply archaic and outdated, or if it is still common. For example, I've seen my usage in some Isaac Asimov novels circa 1940s-1980s, as well as in articles from peer-reviewed psychology journals and monographs circa the same time period...but I haven't encountered my usage in any publications from more recent times. It may be that, because I've read so much of the above material, and have been reading it for such a long time (I've been reading it since January 2006), I simply picked up the usage from the literature and forgot that I did so--but this is not necessarily the case.

My questions for you are: 1) Have you ever encountered usage of 'that' vs. 'which' in the same/similar way as/to which I use them; and 2) How do you, personally, determine whether to use one or the other of the two words; and 3) If you see no problem with the way I use the word 'which' in place of 'that', then (how) do you suggest I go about arguing for the points back?

Current Mood: curiouscurious

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Date:November 18th, 2010 06:17 am (UTC)
from Wolf's Style Guide:
'That is used in restrictive clauses (“The family that prays together...”), which in unrestrictive clauses (“The family, which is the primary social unit...”). “The lawnmower that is broken is in the garage”, distinguishes among a number of possible lawnmowers. “The lawnmower, which is broken, is in the garage.” This imparts information about the one and only lawnmower.

I am increasingly seeing which tossed in where that should be. Stop it!'

Date:November 18th, 2010 09:20 am (UTC)
This is what I learned in high school composition.

What does your school's or your field's accepted style guide say? It should be the defining standard for how your papers are written.
Date:November 18th, 2010 06:04 pm (UTC)

Judges (and other legal writers) are the worst about this: there seems to be a belief that "which" is more formal, and so legal writers use it in all instances—for restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses. Drives me insane.

Date:November 18th, 2010 02:08 pm (UTC)
I definitely overuse that, and realize it's a problem - but I don't think replacing it with which is the solution. For me, it's an issue of accepting that I don't need a word there at all - and having studied five different foreign languages, all of which use that more than English (although I guess in German it's more which), this is hard to wrap my head around.

For example: you said the movie which we saw, but really it only has to be the movie we saw. Ack! How can it be??? But it is. I often have to go through my writing and delete thats and whiches.
Date:November 18th, 2010 06:16 pm (UTC)
My distaste for the blurring that results from "that/which" confusion aside (but see below), I think a couple of the examples here are not good ones. "The reason we were late to the movie" is fine without a "why," and the "why" is probably not right. Similarly, "The way we traveled to the theater" sounds infinitely better than "The way how we traveled." I am fairly sure the latter would be considered ungrammatical by most English speakers.

Now, I am inquiring as to your opinions on this partly because I continue to get marked off points on papers I turn in for my (university) courses, for which, in instances such as these, my usage of "which" instead of "that" strikes the graders as incorrect. I want to know if I have any valid basis for arguing with my professors to get those points back...

If you're using a "which" for a restrictive clause or a "that" for a nonrestrictive clause, then you're getting marked off with good reason.

"The movie which we saw" should either be "The movie that we saw [was good]." or "The movie, which we saw, [was good]." depending on how you intend to use it. If you are distinguishing between a number of movies, you want the first one. If there was one movie, and you're imparting to the reader that you saw it, you want the second. This is a useful distinction that will improve the clarity of your writing, which is (or at least should be) the rationale behind any style-guide rule you follow.
Date:November 19th, 2010 06:10 pm (UTC)
Wow, so I have actually been using "which" incorrectly for all these years. I still wonder where I picked it up. I know the rule about restrictive/nonrestrictive clauses; I just have, for a long time, felt that "which" sounds better than "that" in some restrictive clauses.

I have also, as I mentioned, seen some published fiction AND scholarly (peer-reviewed) publications which/that do use "which" for restrictive clauses instead of "that". I have never seen, that I can remember, seen "that" used for a non-restrictive clause. The primary publications I'm thinking of are some publications by Isaac Asimov in the fiction category; and Leon Festinger, Irving L. Janis, and Leon Mann in the scholarly (social psychology) literature.

The texts (novels, articles, and monographs) were published between the late 1930s and the late 1980s. The authors in both categories also have published in the 1990s, but I don't recall seeing the incorrect usage in those. Perhaps it was due to style guides changing during that decade?