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Thursday, 02 June 2005


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Can you give an example of a sentence in which you would worry about whether to use that or which? As far as I'm aware, they are pretty much interchangeable, except that the former can be used as a synonym for who, as in "The man that shot Liberty Valance". I doubt Fowler would approve, but if he can't make the distinction clear he has only himself to blame.

For example, the gravel on my path which/that is so small it sticks in the soles of my shoes.

Hmm. I'd use "which" in that case, partly because I find "The gravel on my path that is so small..." ugly, but also because it seems to imply that the path, not the gravel, is what sticks. However, I'd use "The gravel that is so small..." and "The gravel which is so small..." interchangeably, so maybe it's the extra clause that makes the difference.

I think it also makes a difference whether you are specifying for the first time ("Let me tell you about the gravel which is so small...") or referring back to something already mentioned ("You remember I told you about the gravel that is so small...").

I don't know what Fowler says about it, but if you scroll down this page to section 5, "Relative pronouns", you might find it clearer than he is, and possibly more helpful than my stylistic prejudices.

"That" limits meaning. "Which" enhances meaning.

Dogs that bite are mean. (limits meaning to a subset of dogs).

Irish setters, which are large dogs, are not as mean as most. (enhances meaning of setters).

Also it would merely be," The gravel on my path is so small..." (no "which" or "that" at all!)

But it would be, "Let me tell you about the gravel that is so small..." (limits the gravel to only small gravel)

Note also, that if you are talking about a person, use "who" in either case.

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