That/Which.

I’ve excavated my pile of old journals up to the Aug. 14, 2015, TLS, where I was taken aback by a couple of (what struck me as) very odd relative clauses in Margreta De Grazia’s “Is there a Higgs boson in the house?” (a review of Graham Holderness’s Tales From Shakespeare: Creative Collisions). Though the article is not available from the TLS site, it has happily been excerpted here, if you want to see the passages in context. Here they are, with the offending clauses bolded:

The encounter between Shakespeare and non-Shakespeare in each critical chapter sparks a fictive spin-off – a fantasy travelogue, a comedy skit, a spy thriller – with the exception of the last, that remains grounded in the hard fact of terrorism.

As in the Essex rebellion, the play, by enacting a king’s deposition, incites insurrection. It introduces the native spectators to the possibility of overthrowing a ruler that in turn clears the way for a successor more hospitable to the British.

My sense of English forbids both these usages; they are not stylistic variants, they are unambiguously wrong, with “which” required rather than “that” in each case. But of course my sense of English is increasingly out of date (I am still not resigned to seeing “may have” instead of “might have” in counterfactuals, for example), so I want to canvass the Varied Reader: do those thats seem OK to you, dubious, or outright wrong?

Comments

  1. J.W. Brewer says:

    I think I agree with you but only after reading the sentences very closely. Of course, that’s because if you don’t read them very closely, you have trouble reliably focusing on what the clauses are supposed to be matched up with. E.g. in the second one I would have initially gone for “who,” because “a ruler who in turn clears the way” for a specific sort of successor isn’t an obviously silly idea or string of words, but on closer reading I guess it’s not the ruler that’s clearing the way here, but the overthrow? Or maybe the possibility of overthrow? Similarly the first one requires careful attention to the punctuation before it’s clear the “that remains grounded clause” doesn’t go with “fictive spin-off.” (Just because something remains grounded in fact doesn’t mean it can’t be fictive, right?)

    In both instances, the sentence structure had already gotten sufficiently convoluted by the time you got to the that/which choice that a native speaker’s usage intuitions might well have gotten thoroughly lost along the way.

  2. Chris McG says:

    For me, both ‘that’s seem perfectly okay and unremarkable, though potentially replaceable by ‘which’ if desired.

    But could the first ‘that’ be being used as a determiner rather than a pronoun? i.e., ‘that’ as in ‘that one’/’that chapter’. Then ‘which’ wouldn’t work. Either way of reading it is possible for me.

  3. gwenllian says:

    I’d use “which”, but these don’t sound wrong to me. I’m just surprised to see them in a text like this one.

  4. The first sounds either outright wrong or deliberately archaic (and I’m pretty sure it’s not the latter). I don’t like the second either, but don’t have as strong a WTF reaction, maybe because of the lack of a comma before the relative clause. But then, these days even writers in the LRB have started using reticent to mean reluctant, so maybe anything goes.

  5. For me, they were both ungrammatical to the point of being incomprehensible on first reading.

  6. They both seem ungrammatical to me.

  7. Both were incomprehensible on first reading. For the first one, i finished the sentence and thought – what remains grounded etc? And for the second, I thought, the ruler clears the way? How does that happen?

  8. The first example seems more-or-less OK to me; I myself sometimes use that non-restrictively, though in this case I think I’d prefer which.

    The second example, I can’t manage to parse; it seems like an editing error to me. From the context, it seems that the relative clause is intended as an adverbial one modifying the whole main clause, “It introduces the native spectators to the possibility of overthrowing a ruler”; but I’ve never seen an adverbial relative without a comma, or with that rather than which.

  9. I also strongly prefer “which” in both places, and I’d file the sentences as written somewhere between “dubious” and “outright wrong.”

  10. Same as TR for me: First one flat wrong, second one dubious.

  11. “Unambiguously wrong” is where I come down as well.

  12. Both seem deeply wrong, and in the second one I was very confused because I assumed the sentence was about something the ruler was doing (because people often use “that” where I would use “who”, for example in sentences like “I’m the ruler that makes the decisions”)

  13. Eli Nelson says:

    Immediate reactions: the first definitely seems wrong, the second seems OK. The first doesn’t sound right even if I replace that with which: “The encounter between Shakespeare and non-Shakespeare in each critical chapter sparks a fictive spin-off – a fantasy travelogue, a comedy skit, a spy thriller – with the exception of the last, which remains grounded in the hard fact of terrorism.” I don’t understand what the “except” means, or why it’s there. That the spy thriller is not actually fictive? I assume it still was, even if it was more grounded in “hard fact” than the other stories. Setting that aside, calling it an exception makes “each chapter” equal “two out of three,” which doesn’t seem like a good way of phrasing it at all. Or maybe the three listed examples don’t include the last?

  14. Eli Nelson says:

    Coming back to look at it again, it seems clearer to me now that “the last” must refer to the last critical chapter, which the sentence is saying does not have any fictive spin-off.

  15. First one is just wrong, second one is, eh, no worse there than in the rest of its text.

    The second one is like “It introduces us to the possibility of the rocketry that later got us to the moon”, isn’t it?

    I read the first as implying there are three fictive chapters and one infictus. If that’s not correct, I don’t know what it’s trying to say. The “that” seems like an editing error.

  16. matematichica says:

    I agree that the first one is flat wrong and the second one also sounds bad, but a touch less so. I might be more content with the second sentence if it said “the possibility of the overthrow of the ruler that in turn clears the way…” but that would only approach felicitousness if the specific concept of an overthrow that clears the way for a more British-friendly monarch had been previously introduced. Somehow “overthrowing” doesn’t work, but making it more “noun-y” by using “the overthrow” could work. I would be basically happy with a different noun, like “a coup d’etat” in place of “overthrowing the ruler.” Maybe this is also an editing error.

  17. I would use which for the first, but I don’t know that I’d say it was wrong. The second looks fine. (BrE/SSE)

  18. Neither usage seems wrong to me, though I would not use that in either case. But then I collect similar examples, mostly from books, so I’m quite used to the construction. (In fact, I’m planning to post a bunch of them on Sentence first when I find the time.)

  19. But then I collect similar examples, mostly from books, so I’m quite used to the construction. (In fact, I’m planning to post a bunch of them on Sentence first when I find the time.)

    I’m glad you’re on the case, and I look forward to seeing your collection and analysis!

  20. Both seem to me to be young folks’ language, and/or young editors’ mischief. I’d prefer “which” with comma in each case. I suspect the author wrote “which” without commas and the editor reflexively substituted “that.”

  21. In the first of the two sentences, one can erase the clause in bold and the remainder would still make perfect sense, since “the last” identifies the chapter in question unequivocally. The clause is therefore non-restrictive; the comma is there, as it should be, but for some inexplicable reason it is followed by “that” rather than “which.” As a Shakespearean scholar, is she following the Bard’s lead by using “that” in non-restrictive clauses?

    The second sentence seems to be technically correct. The play introduces the native spectators to something that clears the way to something else. Still, I’m not sure what exactly the author meant to say.

  22. 47 AmE speaker. The first is a bit awkward and I’d prefer “which” but “that” is fine. The second seems entirely unremarkable.

  23. I’ve got no “sense” of English (or “language feeling” as our teacher used to say), and I’m sure my English doesn’t always make sense. But perhaps you’d like to know how we were taught to decide when to use “who,” “which,” or “that.” Simply put, “who” was only for people, “which” was for anything else, and “that” was correct in every case. Most students always used “that” without giving it a second thought. Some of us, who thought they knew better, were careful to follow the “who” – “which” distinction, but never thought, or sensed, there was a difference in usage between “which” and “that.” But obviously there is. Interesting.

  24. @Ariadne

    The difference between “that” and “which” is that in normative English “that” is never used in non-defining relative clauses. Therefore, almost all native English speakers would reject the sentence “Paris, that is the capital of France, is one of the top tourist destinations in Europe,” for example.

    Those of us who are rejecting the sentences are reading the clauses in question as non-defining. Honestly, though, if I were an editor I’d tell the author to completely rewrite both sentences for the sake of clarity.

  25. @Ariadne: The rule that seems to be pretty widely followed in native speakers’ grammar is that “that” is limited to restrictive clauses – those that distinguish the referent from its peers. For example, “The cat that I met was orange.” (Here, you’re introducing the cat into the discourse, and “that I met” serves to specify which cat you’re referring to.) In these cases, “that” can optionally be replaced with “who” for human referents, and with “which” for non-human ones.

    But in non-restrictive clauses – those which don’t serve to specify the referent, but which merely function as an appositive to it – most native speakers find “that” ungrammatical, with “who” or “which” being required. “The director of the film, who I met yesterday, is very friendly.” The clause “who I met yesterday” doesn’t serve to answer the question “which director?”; it merely adds information about the already-specified referent.

  26. To begin with, I affirm that English uses that or no particle at all in integrative relative clauses and nothing else. This is not a normative rule, but a fact of grammar. A few integrative relative clauses are technically not restrictive (“He was speaking like the clergyman that he was”, “The kind and loving father that raised me seems to have vanished completely”), but 99 out of 100 are. If people violate this, it is a speech/writing error. So the question is, is there any way to interpret these bolded relative clauses as restrictive?

    I think that it’s straightforward in the second case: indeed, too straightforward. Does the that-clause modify possibility or ruler? Against the first, we do not normally distinguish between two different possibilities of an event taking place, one of which clears the way for a pro-British successor and the other of which does not. Against the second, it has become unusual, though certainly not wrong, to attach that-clauses to noun phrases representing persons. So since there are two readings which both seem somewhat off, we tend to jib at the whole sentence.

    For the first case, I can’t see any such excuse: it looks like a blunder of some kind. Rather than a use of that for which, however, it may be a comma that should be a semicolon or colon, in which case that is a pronoun.

    While I’m at it, the test-by-removal is no test at all. “The man that wears the red shirt is jumping up and down” is perfectly coherent as “The man is jumping up and down”; it’s simply that in the latter case the man in question is specified by context rather than a relative clause.

  27. There’s a common advertising idiom, as in, say, “Broomatic—the broom that’s also a mop” or “Socrates Soda—The drink that helps you think.” For some reason the use of that in this idiom always seems clunky to me, but I can’t put a finger on why that is, nor suggest an obvious rephrasing.

  28. for me both jar, and audibly so – both are wrong, in my opinion. I am Irish, but living abroad for 30 years.

  29. @John Cowan: “The man that wears the red shirt is jumping up and down” is perfectly coherent as “The man is jumping up and down”; it’s simply that in the latter case the man in question is specified by context rather than a relative clause.

    But that makes all the difference in the world.

    “The man that wears the red shirt is jumping up and down”: the man is explicitly defined as the one in the red shirt.

    “The man is jumping up and down”: the man is identified in some other way, outside of this sentence.

    “The man, who wears a red shirt, is jumping up and down”: the man is not defined by the color of his shirt – it’s merely an incidental, possibly irrelevant, detail. As in the previous sentence, he’s specified by context.

    It is only the first sentence that provides the answer to “What man?” “The one in the red shirt.”

  30. Christopher S says:

    32 AmE speaker. The first sounds wrong, and needs “which”. The second sounds fine to me.

  31. I think part of the problem is that, in each case, the referent of “that” is unclear. My guesses are:-

    “The encounter between Shakespeare and non-Shakespeare in each critical chapter sparks a fictive spin-off – a fantasy travelogue, a comedy skit, a spy thriller – with the exception of the last, that remains grounded in the hard fact of terrorism.”

    1. each critical chapter has an encounter between Shakespeare and non-Shakespeare
    2. with one exception, each such encounter sparks a fictive spin-off
    3. three instances of such fictive spin-offs are: a fantasy travelogue, a comedy skit, a spy thriller
    4. the exception to (2) is the encounter in the last chapter, which remains grounded in the hard fact of terrorism

    “As in the Essex rebellion, the play, by enacting a king’s deposition, incites insurrection. It introduces the native spectators to the possibility of overthrowing a ruler that in turn clears the way for a successor more hospitable to the British.”

    1. The play introduces the native spectators to the possibility of overthrowing a ruler.
    2. Such an overthrow clears the way for a successor more hospitable to the British.

  32. As a non-native speaker, I have very different reactions to the two passages.

    The first passage is something I’d never say or write: I’d only use “which.” Reading “that” bothers me a bit, but I understand it perfectly and I’d file it under “native speakers get away with inaccuracies.”

    The second passage is hard for me to parse. I wouldn’t have stopped if it were “a ruler, which in turn clears the way.” But what’s clearing the way then? And why “in turn?” All in all, I suspect it’d be the introducing that clears the way.

    Conversely, “a ruler that in turn” sounds to me like a natural analogue of “a ruler who in turn”. But then why the present tense “clears?” A past tense would have sounded fine to my nonnative ear: “overthrowing a ruler that in turn has cleared.”

    In the end I concur with matematichica’s interpretation. The passage wants the overthrowing to clear the way, but the gerund cannot bear that burden. It’d have to be “the possibility of a coup that overthrows a ruler and in turn clears the way …”

  33. As a native speaker, I feel very much the same about both sentences.

  34. vrai.cabecou says:

    American English, and they’re both wrong for me, though for different reasons. The first sentence needs a “which.” The second needs an overhaul.

  35. Stephen C. Carlson says:

    Language Log has a post about the “Non-Restrictive ‘That’,” which links to an earlier Pullum post “An Ivory-Billed Relative Clause,” that takes the position that it is extremely rare but still grammatical.

  36. I think a lot of the instances in the first-linked post are just mispunctuations, though, either from ignorance or because (as in the cartoon itself, per its author) the punctuation is rhetorical rather than structural. As the second-linked post says, sometimes you just can’t be sure whether the author intended a restrictive or a non-restrictive relative clause.

  37. Yup, reading those felt like hitting speedbumps. “Which” is simply correct there.

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