January 11, 2012

More on That

As I said in my last post, I don’t think the distribution of that and which is adequately explained by the restrictive/nonrestrictive distinction. It’s true that nearly all thats are restrictive (with a few rare exceptions), but it’s not true that all restrictive relative pronouns are thats and that all whiches are nonrestrictive, even when you follow the traditional rule. In some cases that is strictly forbidden, and in other cases it is disfavored to varying degrees. Something that linguistics has taught me is that when your rule is riddled with exceptions and wrinkles, it’s usually sign that you’ve missed something important in your analysis.

In researching the topic for this post, I’ve learned a couple of things: (1) I don’t know syntax as well as I should, and (2) the behavior of relatives in English, particularly that, is far more complex than most editors or pop grammarians realize. First of all, there’s apparently been a century-long argument over whether that is even a relative pronoun or actually some sort of relativizing conjunction or particle. (Some linguists seem to prefer the latter, but I won’t wade too deep into that debate.) Previous studies have looked at multiple factors to explain the variation in relativizers, including the animacy of the referent, the distance between the pronoun and its referent, the semantic role of the relative clause, and the syntactic role of the referent.

It’s often noted that that can’t follow a preposition and that it doesn’t have a genitive form of its own (it must use either whose or of which), but no usage guide I’ve seen ever makes mention of the fact that this pattern follows the accessibility hierarchy. That is, in a cross-linguistic analysis, linguists have found an order to the way in which relative clauses are formed. Some languages can only relativize subjects, others can do subjects and verbal objects, yet others can do subjects, verbal objects, and oblique objects (like the objects of prepositions), and so on. For any allowable position on the hierarchy, all positions to the left are also allowable. The hierarchy goes something like this:

subject ≥ direct object ≥ indirect object ≥ object of stranded preposition ≥ object of fronted preposition ≥ possessor noun phrase ≥ object of comparative particle

What is interesting is that that and the wh- relatives, who and which, occupy overlapping but different portions of the hierarchy. Who and which can relativize anything from subjects to possessors and possibly objects of comparative particles, though whose as the genitive form of which seems a little odd to some, and both sound odd if not outright ungrammatical with comparatives, as in The man than who I’m taller. But that can’t relativize objects of fronted prepositions or anything further down the scale.

Strangely, though, there are things that that can do that who and which can’t. That can sometimes function as a sort of relative adverb, equivalent to the relative adverbs why, where, or when or to which with a preposition. That is, you can say The day that we met, The day when we met, or The day on which we met, but not The day which we met. And which can relativize whole clauses (though some sticklers consider this ungrammatical), while that cannot, as in This author uses restrictive “which,” which bothers me a lot.

So what explains the differences between that and which or who? Well, as I mentioned above, some linguists consider that not a pronoun but a complementizer or conjunction (perhaps a highly pronominal one), making it more akin to the complementizer that, as in He said that relativizers were confusing. And some linguists have also proposed different syntactic structures for restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses, which could account for the limitation of that to restrictive clauses. If that is not a true pronoun but a complementizer, then that could account for its strange distribution. It can’t appear in nonrestrictive clauses, because they require a full pronoun like which or who, and it can’t appear after prepositions, because those constructions similarly require a pronoun. But it can function as a relative adverb, which a regular relative pronoun can’t do.

As I argued in my previous post, it seems that which and that do not occupy separate parts of a single paradigm but are part of two different paradigms that overlap. The differences between them can be characterized in a few different ways, but for some reason, grammarians have seized on the restrictive/nonrestrictive distinction and have written off the rest as idiosyncratic exceptions to the rule or as common errors (when they’ve addressed those points at all).

The proposal to disallow which in restrictive relative clauses, except in the cases where that is ungrammatical—sometimes called Fowler’s rule, though that’s not entirely accurate—is based on the rather trivial observation that all thats are restrictive and that all nonrestrictives are which. It then assumes that the converse is true (or should be) and tries to force all restrictives to be that and all whiches to be nonrestrictive (except for all those pesky exceptions, of course).

Garner calls Fowler’s rule “nothing short of brilliant,”1Garner’s Modern American Usage, 3rd ed., s.v. “that. A. And which.” but I must disagree. It’s based on a rather facile analysis followed by some terrible logical leaps. And insisting on following a rule based on bad linguistic analysis is not only not helpful to the reader, it’s a waste of editors’ time. As my last post shows, editors have obviously worked very hard to put the rule into practice, but this is not evidence of its utility, let alone its brilliance. But a linguistic analysis that could account for all of the various differences between the two systems of relativization in English? Now that just might be brilliant.


Herbert F. W. Stahlke, “Which That,” Language 52, no. 3 (Sept. 1976): 584–610
Johan Van Der Auwera, “Relative That: A Centennial Dispute,” Journal of Lingusitics 21, no. 1 (March 1985): 149–79
Gregory R. Guy and Robert Bayley, “On the Choice of Relative Pronouns in English,” American Speech 70, no. 2 (Summer 1995): 148–62
Nigel Fabb, “The Difference between English Restrictive and Nonrestrictive Relative Clauses,” Journal of Linguistics 26, no. 1 (March 1990): 57–77
Robert D. Borsley, “More on the Difference between English Restrictive and Nonrestrictive Relative Clauses,” Journal of Linguistics 28, no. 1 (March 1992), 139–48


1 Garner’s Modern American Usage, 3rd ed., s.v. “that. A. And which.”
Descriptivism, Grammar, Prescriptivism, Usage, Words 13 Replies to “More on That
Jonathon Owen
Jonathon Owen


13 thoughts on “More on <i>That</i>

    Author’s gravatar

    Nice post. It’s a very complicated area, and what I’d add is that many grammatical issues are very complicated in usage and historically.
    Grammarians would like to propose simple distinctions, and sometimes that’s useful for writers and editors, but the realities on the ground (in usage) and historically tend to be fuzzy.
    Another good example is the uninterested/disinterested distinction. It may very well be useful; it may appear to be simple; but the historical and practical realities are not.

    Author’s gravatar

    Thanks for the comment, and I agree. It seems that the motivation for many prescriptive rules is to simplify those complicated issues and thus avoid having to deal with them, but of course that doesn’t make them go away. And anyway, they’re often a fascinating and enlightening area of study.

    Author’s gravatar

    For any of these issues, there’s usually a very informative entry in Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, and the 1994 edition is available for full view on Google Books. People who read this blog probably know that, but it’s a good starting point for these discussions – Have you looked it up? for example in MWDEU?
    Thanks for the list of references, too.

    Author’s gravatar

    Hi. I have enjoyed your blog immensely, as it definitely has a linguistics theme, which I am exploring more of these days. For this reason, I have chosen you for the Versatile Blogger Award. I was chosen (http://techeditors.wordpress.com/2012/01/14/someones-actually-reading-my-blog/), and I have in turn chosen you as one of my most inspiring and useful blogs that I read on a regular basis. Congratulations and keep on blogging! See my post for the rules and links about this award.

    Author’s gravatar

    Write like a linguist, not like an editor.
    Thanks for the aphorism, Grady.
    How do editors write, anyway? Editors edit and writers write, don’t they?
    Have you read “Syntax: A Functional-Typological Introduction” (2 volumes) by Talmy Givon? It’s not the tightest writing and there are lots of typos, but the analyses will change the way you think about language.

    Author’s gravatar

    While I agree that “The man than who I’m taller.” is awkward at best, “The man who I’m taller than” seems perfectly fine to me.

    Author’s gravatar

    Agreed. Which makes me wonder if that’s evidence that than is really a preposition. What other conjunctions can be stranded like that?

    Author’s gravatar

    I *think* what the previous commenter meant is this: it’s fine if you want to “write like a linguist, not like an editor,” which you obviously do, but don’t hold yourself out as an editor. I like the blog, by the way.

    Author’s gravatar

    I’m not sure why I shouldn’t hold myself out as an editor, since it’s what I do for a living. This does not mean that my prose is perfect or error-free, of course. Editing your own writing is an entirely different beast from editing others’ writing. And then, of course, there’s the fact that I do this all in my free time.

    Author’s gravatar

    I believe that than can be a preposition as well as a conjunction. Others can – say, before – which accounts for other strange behaviors “disallowed” to than yet permitted them. For instance, “He left before (me/I did)” which exactly parallels the governance at question in “more than (me/I do)”.

    Author’s gravatar

    So, say you were a writer arguing with her editor about her usage of “which” — what would you say, in plain English? I find this post fascinating, not least because it proves (in a way much more articulate than my protestations) how the restrictive/non-restrictive rule is annoyingly simplistic.

    I don’t pretend to be knowledgeable about grammar, but I have a very good ear when it comes to how the language should sound, so it was endlessly irritating trying to discuss the whys and wherefores of this thorny issue with said editor.

    Probably this section would do: “The proposal to disallow which in restrictive relative clauses, except in the cases where that is ungrammatical, is the rather trivial observation that all thats are restrictive and that all nonrestrictives are which. It then assumes that the converse is true..”

    Sadly, I’ll bet it still wouldn’t convince.

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