…is like road rage, but with splattered ink. I just came across this excerpt from a ‘kooky new grammar book’ — they’re always new, they’re always kooky, but the fundamental indifference of the English language to rules persists — written by an American journalist called June Casagrande (link via Galleycat)
Just like everybody else I felt stupid that I’ve never really understood the difference between “that” and “which,” but I didn’t let this shame stop me from confessing my ignorance repeatedly to colleagues until eventually one told me to look it up.
Now here’s an odd thing. Generally speaking, nobody seems to know the difference between ‘that’ and ‘which’. And some people seem to run around the place decrying their ignorance in the hope that a poor fool will explain it to them. More fool the poor fool, because, once explained, the questioner will declare the answer to be grammatical mumbo jumbo and, anyway, if the great writers of the English language didn’t know the difference, why should they? Well, if you don’t want to know, don’t ask. Sheesh.
And now that I finally get it, I can see where a major source of my confusion came from: merry old England.
What? I mean, what? Which is to say: WHAT?
Even now, several minutes after reading this article, the heat of my face warms my hands as they bash the keyboard.
Consider the following oh-so-British-sounding sentence: The college which I attend is better than the college which you attend. This use of “which” is found in every rung of British English, from the poorest Cockney flower girl all the way up to classic Monty Python sketches.
Ex-SQUEEZE me? British-sounding? Bri- Bri-
Too. Angry. To. Type.
Perhaps the above sentence would be considered correct over there, even though the Oxford English Grammar seems to suggest that this construction is wrong on both sides of the pond.
No, Ms Casagrande, it effing well would not be considered correct over here. Allow me to solve the mystery of the perplexing Oxford English Grammar advice on the use of ‘that’ and ‘which’: the OEG presents this rule because it is bloody well the right rule, and always has been. All editions Fowler’s observe it. So too does the Guardian’s online style guide, which is a little quirky otherwise. The interchangeability of that and which is not a ‘Britishicism’ or, as you say in your quaint, murder-inviting way, ‘Brit-speak’.
Jp. Jp. Aaargh. Anger. Rising. Once. More.
Blimey, what must I be like in real life? Just don’t get me started on grammar. Just. Don’t.
Hhhhhhhhhhhhh’OK. Let me concede that, yes, I know the odd British writer who doesn’t understand the difference between ‘that’ and ‘which’. Douglas Adams is one, and — though the esteem in which I hold his work is well documented — it’s always been a source of slight embarrassment that Adams couldn’t tell the difference and neither, presumably, could any of the editors who looked over his manuscripts prior to their publication. But I’ve seen American authors make this mistake more often. Let’s remember that I don’t sample randomly from all fiction, so I can’t make any claims about American fiction in general, but only last week I was reading Stephen King’s (nicely done) From a Buick 8 and noticed a which/that error.
Now, I’m a slightly odd person. (I know. You’re shocked.) I have a PhD in an arcane discipline called syntactic psycholinguistics. Oh, the stories I could tell about complementizer ambiguity! I spent four years of my life, which I will never get back, giving people tests cunningly designed to analyze the manner in which they processed sentences containing — what are known in the trade as — relative clauses.
Here’re two things about grammar: (1) Grammatical relationships are fiendishly complex. (2) No matter how fiendishly complex they are, rest assured that you are fully expert in their use.
Let me explain. Look at this:
The grammatical relationships are represented by the tree-like structure. It seems complicated, and it is, but if you’ve got this far in my post then you’re already an expert, and you’ve already outstripped the best of our man-made machines designed to comprehend language simply by reading my sentences, particularly long, complex ones like this. You have these rules already, and they’re between your ears.
You developed a knowledge of these relationships as a child because your brain is designed to hoover them up (the suction drops considerably once you’re out of your teens, by the way, so try to learn languages when you’re young). Back to ‘that’ and ‘which’. You can learn the difference between the two just by being exposed to good examples. You don’t need to bother with technical terms, though ‘restrictive’ vs. ‘non-restrictive’ might be helpful as a memory aide. Take a look at these sentences:
(1) The car that was red interested the buyer.
(2) The car, which was red, interested the buyer.
Now, I repeat: you already know this. Just mull over the sentences and let the difference in meaning percolate out. In (1), the buyer was interested, out of all the cars on display, in the red one. In (2), the buyer was interested in the car and it happened to be red. The redness isn’t important. In fact, it can be snipped out with no impact on the main assertion of the sentence (as suggested by the commas).
That’s it. All done. The next time you find yourself expressing an idea in this way (and this construction is very common in English) then: if you’re restricting the first bit of the sentence, use ‘that’; if you’re just describing the first bit of the sentence, use ‘which’. Remember, if you can see a difference in meaning between (1) and (2), you already have the rule between your ears, and don’t worry about naming the ‘subject’ and ‘relative pronoun’ and all the other gubbins. If you use this construction once or twice in the next couple of days, I expect you’ll appreciate that the distinction between ‘that’ and ‘which’ is very useful.
And not just because you’re an American.