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Today, I’m going to blog about the word “which”.

Earlier, on Twitter, I shouted at the world for using “which” when it means “that”. A few minutes ago, someone replied saying I was being “petty, anal and simply wrong”. He linked to a series of pages that tracked the use of the words in various acclaimed pieces of literature, with the conclusion that the best writers use them almost interchangably, and therefore they must be interchangable. It is a plainly flawed conclusion to draw.

What I’m talking about is an awkward phenomenon where people write something like “the book which was written like this was perfectly fine.”  Which, to me, would be perfectly fine if it read “the book, which was written like this, was perfectly fine.”  But when I read that first sentence, I’m actually stumbling, then eventually processing it as: “the book that was written like this was perfectly fine.”

In other words, I’m reading that it is a book that was specifically written like this was perfectly fine, not a book that just so happened to be written like this was perfectly fine.  The first specifies the type of book that was fine. The second is just saying the book was fine, and adding some additional information.

If “which” appears in that place, without the commas denoting it as a relative clause, then it is ambiguous to me, because I have always been taught (by AP style guidelines and various other editorial standards I write to, as well as, y’know, schoolteachers and that) of this difference between the two.

In no way am I saying it’s ungrammatical.  Of couse it isn’t ungrammatical.  Punctuation and word usage in this way is all just prescriptive rules anyway, trying to ape spoken language in a way that works best.  In no way am I saying the best writers don’t do it.  Writers far, far, far more accomplished than myself do it all the time.  It doesn’t make them poor writers.

But it does mean that, for that split-second, I’m snapped out of the magic they’re weaving with their words, while I process what exactly it is they’re trying to communicate to me.

The pages my Twitter friend linked to belong to Mark Liberman, a linguist who seems to be doing his absolute best to track down various pieces of prescriptive grammar rules and somehow disprove them.  Which is just bizarre, to me.  All of the rules are somewhat arbitrary. No one is saying it is wrong to say “which” when you mean “that”. As in, it is not ungrammatical to do so.  If it were ungrammatical, I wouldn’t just stumble when I read it, I would literally not be able to understand it.  That is how grammar works.  We understand things because we are born with an ability to form general rules of grammar subconsciously in our heads, then apply them to the language we grow up learning. (There are various other theories, but this is the only one that makes sense to me.)

No, we’re not talking about whether or not something is grammatical here.  What I’m saying is that it is best practice when writing in Standard English, or something similar to it, to observe various prescribed rules, because they are the ones we have grown up learning, and the ones that help us to process things most effectively.

It is best practice because it is the least ambiguous.  As a journalist, I have always been trained to be concise and efficient with words.  This, surely, applies to structure as well.  It is all about communicating a message in the way that flows the best.

That‘s why it grates when I see “which” instead of “that”, or “which” introducing a relative clause without commas.  Because it makes me pause, if only for a split-second, and try to work out what the writer is trying to say.  So much is encoded in that tiny little choice of how to phrase the sentence. To phrase things in anything other than the least ambiguous way makes no sense to me.

Man. That was a rant.

Thing is, I’d hate for anyone to think I’m the sort of person who goes around picking people up on spelling errors and so forth.  I’m really not.  It absolutely enrages me when people talk about “proper English”, as if all regional dialects are somehow inexplicably inferior. Or that Standard English isn’t just a dialect itself. It partly enrages me because I fear people think of me as this horrible, anal, petty nightmare of a person, one who continually attempts to bring the best writers down by criticising the choices they make with language.  That is totally not the person I am, nor do I want to be.  It also enrages be because it feels like people think a degree in linguistics was obviously lost on me, and that I’ve ignored the core principles of the field – ie. there is no “wrong”, there is only “variation”.  This is not the case either.

But when we write formally, we are adopting one of those specific variations.  In England, I’m adopting something close to Standard Written English, and I am expecting that those reading what I write will be expecting to read something close to Standard Written English.

So when I write “that” instead of “which”, I’m not just doing it blindly because someone told me to.  I’m doing it as both a stylistic choice, and because it is the least ambiguous way of wording the sentence.

I’m rambling now, so I’ll wrap up.

Conclusion: you’re all wrong, I’m awesome, go away.


7 responses »

  1. As an English graduate, I’m with you. “Which” can be used, in certain contexts, but for the most part, can people stop being so fucking pretentious and just say “that?” Is it really that difficult to take a well-known synonym and use it normally, rather than thesaurus-up your article because you’re that insecure the lack of a single exploratory smidgen of discourse may bely the intellectual insecurities you feel?

    Argh. Ignore ’em, Lewis.

    Journalism + too many big words = essay with a conversational swing.

    • No, no, no. I can’t get behind that at all.

      It’s not pretentious at all. I don’t know of anyone who’s doing this because it makes people Fink Vey Luk Smarter or something.

      The problem is that synonymity isn’t binary. There’s a sliding scale. And while “which” and “that” are partly synonymous, there’s a tiny little something encoded in that choice that differentiates in certain contexts.

      And that’s why it grates.

      • I know, I was just ranting lots because I’ve been engaged in constant academic discourse for two days. Read enough literary theory essays and you’ll get cranky at any word longer than three letters, eventually ;).

        That and people replacing “that” with “which” doesn’t even make a lot of sense in most cases – I agree, you’d think most people would be able to tell that it’s a only slightly similar in meaning, in certain contexts.

  2. That what you wrote then, were great.

    In all seriousness though, I completely understand what you were saying, it should be written in such a way, but with the way the modern language is (arguably descending) these days, it seems that many of the classic rules of grammar and sentence framing that I was taught when I was younger are being slightly bent one way or another, yet still being accepted as suitable English. I’m personally not fan of it myself and agree that the way you proposed the sentence did in fact make much more sense than the other.

    • Language has been changing (and people saying it’s been decending) since its very inception. There’s nothing wrong with language change.

      I am certain that “which” and “that” will eventually become completely synonymous. There’s a good chance “it’s” will drop its apostrophe, too, at some point, if we go by historical trends.

      Right now, though, that the two are not yet completely synonymous makes one usage ambiguous. That’s the issue I have.

  3. I agree. Language is a tool for communication. When we read and write, there’s only so much we can pass back and forth without utilising the fine grains of meaning. Sure, amazing and wonderful are the same word to most people, but the fact is that, should you respect their narrower definitions, your vocabulary just got larger and more powerful – vital in an age where communication is so important.

  4. Chatlog from Steam tonight:

    00:41 – LewisResolution: There are fansites to actual games which also cover their mods
    00:41 – LewisResolution: (Fuck – THAT also cover their mods)

    Even the mighty fall occasionally ;).


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