I've been examining the privately compiled media English corpus, and
realized that the restrictive relative pronoun which
(as in the example below) is hardly observed.
Example: I have a book which my father gave me.
This observation reminds me of Dr. Fowler, who in his MEU1 [A Dictionary
of Modern English Usage], strongly says that we should avoid it.
In the contemporary English grammar, how much is it accepted?
This is a question which has often occurred to me,
too! When I was in school many years ago, I was taught that which
is formally correct as a relative pronoun referring to things.
But people have sometimes corrected my usage of which.
They say I should use that as a restrictive relative
pronoun and which only in nonrestrictive clauses. This
is a signal to me that the English language is undergoing a change in
Of course, directly after a preposition, only which
or whom (not that) can be used as
a relative pronoun. For example,
That is the usage for which I have been criticized.
The statement that Shin'ichiro Ishikawa makes is true—that which
as a restrictive relative pronoun is not always used; some references
suggest using that instead. In fact, there are current “rules” against
the use of which in this function, which Barbara refers to, some
of which are shown below.
However, there are also respected references and corpora which include
and describe the use of which as a restrictive relative
pronoun. These are shown below as well.
Some of the current style books which advise/ that advise
not using which when “that” will
- The Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style, by
Bryan A. Garner (Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 330:
If you can omit the clause without changing the basic meaning,
the clause is nonrestrictive; use a comma plus which.
- The Chicago Manual of Style, 14th Ed. (University of Chicago
Press, 1993, p. 168):
A distinction has traditionally been made between the relative
pronouns which and that, the latter
having long been regarded as introducing a restrictive clause, and
the former, a nonrestrictive one. Although the distinction is often
disregarded in contemporary writing, the careful writer and editor
should bear in mind that such indifference may result in misreading
- The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, by Allan
M. Siegal and William G. Connolly (Random House, 1999, p. 329):
Use that, not which, in a
restrictive clause—a clause necessary to the reader’s
understanding of the sentence.
All three references note the possibility of misunderstanding the meaning
of the restrictive relative clause if which is used
and the commas inadvertently omitted. With that there
can be no such ambiguity. Compare:
(a) We liked the hotel which overlooked the lake.
(b) We liked the hotel, which overlooked the lake.
(c) We liked the hotel that overlooked the lake.
(d) I am slimmer than she is.
Sentence (a) (without comma) means that we liked only the one hotel,
the one overlooking the lake; note, however, that the hotel is one among
Sentence (b) (with comma) means that we are talking about only this
particular hotel. There may be others, but if so, this fact is irrelevant.
Sentence (c) means the same as sentence (a): that we liked only the
hotel overlooking the lake, although there definitely was another hotel,
or hotels, to consider.
All the references above expressed concern that if the comma were omitted
by accident, or wrongly placed, the intended meaning of the noun plus
its adjective clause could be unclear.
A wider, more accepting view of the use of which is
shown by several reliable references, including the following:
The other 30 examples of which in the sample
appear in (a) non-restrictive relative clauses, such as “…by
the set, design and costumes, which recreate
ancient China”; (b) directly after prepositions, such as “…adviser
is competent in the area in which you specifically
want advice”; (c) after a quantity expression with “of,”
such as “…a number of things, one of which is….”
There is no question about the use of which in these
three cases; it is the only correct relative pronoun. While a modern
tendency, or prescription, may be to avoid which
in restrictive relative clauses, this is certainly not universally
accepted, nor, in the opinion of this writer, should it be. To make
clear whether the information is necessary to describe the noun in
a restrictive clause, use that or which
with NO comma and NO slight pause in speech. To add extra information
in a nonrestrictive clause, be careful to add a comma in writing;
in speaking, a slight pause often comes naturally.
A different issue about the use of which concerns
the degree of formality desired: which is more formal