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Confusing rules: which/that?  

People in the UK and the US constantly wrangle over this grammar point, as they differ in their opinion about which relative pronoun to use when defining something – which or that?

In fact, both choices are correct; it is purely a matter of style.

If English is not your first language, it can be easier to follow US style (as stated below in the style guides), as they have a rule.

Which do you find more natural?

1. South Shields cafe which employs staff with autism faces closure.

2. Cafe that helps people with disabilities fundraises to avoid closure.

This BBC wrote the first one, using which, which is British style; whereas the second, with that, is from WISN 12 News in the US.

In this writing tip, you will see that while British dictionaries reflect reality, the British news media style guides follow US rules for some reason, but usually then contradict them when they write.

Cambridge dictionary

A defining relative clause usually comes immediately after the noun it describes: Here are some cells which have been affected.

Oxford dictionary

Which is used to be exact about the thing or things that you mean: Houses which overlook the lake cost more.

The Guardian, which is a British newspaper, states in its style guide:

which or that? “This is quite easy, really: ‘that’ defines, ‘which’ gives extra information (often in a clause enclosed by commas)”    Guardian and Observer style guide  https://www.theguardian.com/guardian-observer-style-guide-w

The BBC takes a similar stance, but is a little more cautious as it uses ‘generally’:

which/that “Generally: ‘that’ defines, and ‘which’ informs.”
BBC News style guide  https://www.bbc.co.uk/newsstyleguide

Steven Pinker, a renowned Canadian linguist, states that these rules of thumb, as in the style guides above, have morphed into a rule of grammar in the US, and a perfectly innocuous construction is demonized as incorrect. He states: “Nowhere is this transition better documented than with the phony but ubiquitous rule on when to use ‘which’ and when to use ‘that’.”

He states that one part of the rule is correct, as it’s odd to use ‘that’ with a non-restrictive relative clause, as in “The pair of shoes, that cost £5,000, was hideous.” So odd, in fact, that few people write that way. But he says there’s nothing wrong with using ‘which’ to introduce a restrictive relative clause, as in “The pair of shoes which cost £5,000 was hideous.” 

In summary, the US have the rule, while the British are usually unaware of its existence.

Grammar Girl from the US states the following on the topic: “So if you’re British, know that Americans might think you’ve made a mistake when you use ‘which’ with a restrictive element, or they may be dazzled by your accent and not even notice.”

Below are some recent examples from British articles which/that contradict the rule above. The Guardian and Observer style guide does, however, acknowledge that clauses are often (not always) enclosed in commas, as commas are disappearing, particularly in short sentences, as in the third example.

1 ‘The destruction was intense’: the photos which capture Gaza’s humanitarian crisis

2 South African man confesses starting fire which killed 76 to conceal murder.

3 Which British fish to buy if you want to eat sustainably: Replace cod with European hake which has the same meaty texture. 

4 Lionel Messi: Napkin which detailed Argentine’s first Barcelona contract to be auctioned.

Here is how they would be written if the rules had been followed:

1 ‘The destruction was intense’: the photos that capture Gaza’s humanitarian crisis. (defines)

2 South African man confesses starting fire that killed 76 to conceal murder. (defines)

3 Which British fish to buy if you want to eat sustainably: Replace cod with European hake, which has the same meaty texture. (If you strictly stick to the rule of giving extra information).

4 Lionel Messi: Napkin that detailed Argentine’s first Barcelona contract to be auctioned. (defines)

________________________________________________
Carol Waites (PhD)
Email: carolswritingtips@gmail.com
For more writing tips, consult my website:
https://carolswritingtips.com/writingtips/
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Presentation/editing by Christina O’Shaughnessy (editor)
https://worldwidewriting.org/

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