Cover of The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition
For me, the most interesting revelation in Lynne Truss’s curmudgeonly classic Eats, Shoots and Leaves was that British writers and editors are far less meticulous than Americans int he same professions. “How could that be?” my college-age self wondered. “Don’t the British supposedly sublimate their fascist tendencies into primness? And isn’t grammar the prime example of oppressive correctness?” Since then, I’ve become and editor, and I’ve lost all doubt: British writers fling about grammar and punctuation with an insouciance that makes me sweat. In other words, “an Englishwoman lecturing Americans on semicolons is a little like an American lecturing the French on sauces,” according to a review of Truss’s book in The New Yorker. *
A writer trained in the United Kingdom (or one of its colonies) is likely to use “that” and “which” interchangeably. Employing these words differently is a classic point of careful American usage, enshrined in Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, among other places. I thought it might be worth revisiting the issue, since the distinction between to two comes as a surprise to many writers. Because I often find it easier to understand examples than grammatical jargon, I thought it might make sense to start with some instances of the words in motion.
The puppy, which is misbehaving, has been sent to obedience school.
The puppy that is misbehaving has been sent to obedience school.
The sock, which is purple, was under the couch.
The sock that is purple was under the couch.
Ok, so what is going on here? The idea is that that is “restrictive” and which is “nonrestrictive.” This means that that specifies a particular kind of sock or puppy. The misbehaving puppy has been sent to obedience school, but the angelic puppy gets to stay home. The purple sock was under the couch, but the argyle ones were in the laundry basket. Which doesn’t specify much of anything; really, it just introduces some explanatory information. Which is unlikely to be the correct choice for constructing a formally written sentence–that is far more commonly used.
It might sound a little odd, but this grammar rule brings back fond family memories for me. My father taught it to me when I was in college with the examples “the lawnmower that is broken in in the garage” and “the lawnmower, which is broken, is in the garage.” Later, when I got my own copy of Strunk and White, I was impressed to find that he was quoting the book directly. Now, whenever I’m not sure whether to use that or which, you can find me mumbling to myself about lawnmowers and thinking of my father.
*On the other hand, a writer in The New Yorker complaining about irritating issues of style is a tad rich, too. I mean, come on, guys. Coöperation? Just because it’s logical doesn’t make it right.