When That Refuses to Play, Which Comes to Stay
by Owen Fourie
You have grasped the distinction between which and that, haven’t you?
You know when to use that and when to use which because this is what we established in That, Which: Part I.
If you did not read that post, you should do so before reading this one.
The substance of the information there is simply this:
- For restrictive clauses, use the relative pronoun that, and do not place a comma before that.
- For nonrestrictive clauses, use the relative pronoun which, and place a comma before which and also at the end of the clause it introduces.
In everyday usage, you will see and hear restrictive clauses introduced by which, and the meaning will not necessarily be mistaken.
In your formal speaking and writing, it is better to keep the rule.
Although there is much more that can be said about the use of that and which, this article will deal with only one point:
When that refuses to play, which comes to stay
There doesn’t seem to be a problem with accepting that as the head of a restrictive clause.
Is which always associated only with nonrestrictive clauses?
No. There are times when which must be used with restrictive clauses.
Consider the following statement. (For that to be used here, the sentence would have to be rewritten.)
This is a school in which many students find their skepticism about learning giving way to enthusiasm and which many recommend with pride and gratitude.
The information given about this particular school is essential to an understanding of its character.
You know that restrictive clauses, with their essential information, are introduced by that, not which, but here we find this role given to which.
Inflexible that gives way to pliable which
In a restrictive clause, that refuses to be in any place other than the head.
That will not follow a preposition, but which doesn’t mind, and it happily follows a preposition and earns for itself a place in a restrictive clause.
In the example, not only does which follow a preposition, but it also follows the conjunction, and, joining the second clause to the first.
You can expect to see restrictive clauses headed by prepositional phrases such as these:
- by which;
- for which;
- from which;
- of which;
- to which.
Although that holds pride of place in restrictive clauses, there are occasions when it will not play its part, and that is when which comes to stay.
If there are any points about that and which that still puzzle you, please ask here for clarification. What reasons can you give for using that and which interchangeably without regard to restrictive or nonrestrictive clauses? Your comments, observations, and questions are welcome.
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