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Friday, November 30, 2012

That vs. Which

One of the things I'm really starting to love about my job is all of the grammar-confusion-induced discussions I've had with people on Facebook. When I get stuck on a sentence, know that something is off, but don't quite know how to fix it, I post it as my status and wait for the suggestions to come in. Many, many thanks to all of you who have been active and resurgent participants in those discussions.

One rule that I've looked up many times, which I still do not seem to be able to impress permanently, is when I ought to use "that" rather than "which." Perhaps many of you suffer from the same malady. But thanks to old classmates, aunts, cousins and past co-workers, I think perhaps today I have come a little closer to remembering the rules. Look here to see how the Oxford Dictionary explains it.

In addition to my understanding of that distinction being increased, I was given the gift of a truly remarkable, outrageous and totally awesome sentence. One of my facebook advisees (thank you, Elaine!) shared this with me. I showed it to several people in my office, and, sadly, most of them either scratched their heads or gently mocked my enthusiasm for nerdy grammar stuff. If you are a faithful reader here, I'm sure that you'll appreciate the brilliance of the following construction:

I know that that that that that lady used was correct.

Can we throw a party now?


  1. I used to get aggravated when I saw the word "aggravate" used improperly, until I caught Dickens doing it... It only slightly irritates me now.

  2. Hehehe. That's almost as good as the punctuation-less

    Jeff while Jack had had had had had had had had had had had a better effect on the teacher

    Or "Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo."


    1. I've heard the buffalo one before, but not the had one! I think I need to hear it with inflection to understand it. Because, you see, I DON'T understand it :)

  3. I always got a kick out of glancing through my dad's old copy of Chesterton's life of Aquinas. The first nine or ten pages are covered in tiny little x-marks and underlines where GK was misusing his semi-colons and Dad tried to keep up with his ex post facto pencil-editing; and then around the middle of Chapter One, my ol' pappy must've just given up in despair. The semi-colons kept coming, and very often kept being misused (technically), but the little exasperated pencil-marks finally trailed off. I guess the lesson is, when you're G.K. Chesterton, you can separate your dependent clauses however you bloody well like.

    1. I got to go hear the Messiah on Friday night, and found at least four editorial mistakes in the program. I was itching for my green pen. It's never been enjoyable to read poorly written material; now it's getting to be downright debilitating.

  4. Ciao Ellie,
    As I read this post, I kept wanting to shout,"Forget not the restrictive/non-restrictive distinction! Forget it not!" Some grammarians substitute "descriptive" in place of "non-restrictive," which I find more, well, descriptive of the nature of the clause.

    I must confess that I always notice when "that" or "which" is misused. It is a great suffering for me, as I'm sure you understand. Indeed, much like the split infinitive, a misuse of "that" or "which," particularly in academic articles, causes me to distrust the rest of the author's work. "Why Josh, how rash you are!" you may exclaim. Still, we know that, had people minded their commas, Shanghai would not be burning. Imagine the repercussions of the confusion of "which" and "that!"

    Ave Maria!

    1. Josh, I think I actually had a conversation with you about this very question, most likely on the Capp Bar patio. I'm delighted to hear from you! I wrote a letter for you about a year and a half ago and never found your address; I still have said letter. I would even be willing to write you a current edition if you let me know where you are living.

      I completely sympathize, nay, empathize with your distrust of grammatically stunted academics. Grammar comes before sound logic and convincing rhetoric, and one who imagines it is dispensable or does not trouble to learn the minutia of the science deserves expulsion from any academic community worth its salt.