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H.W. Fowler (1858–1933).  The King’s English, 2nd ed.  1908.

Chapter II. Syntax

RELATIVES

b. 'That' and 'who' or 'which'.



'THAT' is evidently regarded by many writers as nothing more than an ornamental variation for 'who' and 'which', to be used, not indeed immoderately, but quite without discrimination. The opinion is excusable; it is not easy to draw any distinction that is at all consistently supported by usage. There was formerly a tendency to use 'that' for everything: the tendency now is to use 'who' and 'which' for everything. 'That', from disuse, has begun to acquire an archaic flavour, which with some authors is a recommendation. De Quincey, for one, must certainly have held that in exalted prose 'that', in all connexions, was the more dignified relative; his higher flights abound in curious uses of the word, some instances of which are quoted below.

This confusion is to be regretted; for although no distinction can be authoritatively drawn between the two relatives, an obvious one presents itself. The few limitations on 'that' and 'who' about which every one is agreed all point to 'that' as the defining relative, 'who' or 'which' as the non-defining. We cannot say 'My father, that left Berlin last night, will shortly arrive', and an examination of instances would show that we can never use 'that' where the clause is unmistakably non-defining. On the other hand, we cannot say 'All which I can do is useless'; this time, it is true, the generalization will not hold; 'which' can, and sometimes must, be used, and 'who' commonly is used, in defining clauses. But that is explained partly by the obvious inconvenience sometimes attending the use of 'that', and partly by the general tendency to exclude it from regular use, which has already resulted in making it seem archaic when used of persons, except in certain formulae.

The rules given below are a modification of this principle, that 'that' is the defining, 'who' or 'which' the non-defining relative; the reason for each modification is given in its place. We must here remind the reader of the distinction drawn in a. between defining and non-defining clauses: a defining clause limits the application of the antecedent, enabling us to select from the whole class to which the antecedent is applicable the particular individual or individuals meant.


  1. 'That' should never be used to introduce a non-defining clause; it is therefore improperly used in all the following examples:

    But by her side was kneeling her better angel, that hid his face with wings: that wept and pleaded for her: that prayed when she could not: that fought with Heaven by tears for her deliverance.—De Quincey.

    Rendering thanks to God in the highest—that, having hid his face through one generation behind thick clouds of war, once again was ascending.—De Quincey.

    And with my own little stock of money besides, that Mrs. Hoggarty's card-parties had lessened by a good five-and-twenty shillings, I calculated...—Thackeray.

    How to keep the proper balance between these two testy old wranglers, that rarely pull the right way together, is as much...—Meredith.

    Nataly promised amendment, with a steely smile, that his lips mimicked fondly.—Meredith.

    It is opposed to our Constitution, that only allows the Crown to remove a Norwegian Civil servant.—Nansen.

    I cannot but feel that in my person and over my head you desire to pay an unexampled honour to the great country that I represent, to its Bench and Bar, that daily share your labours and keep step with your progress.—Choate.


    'That I represent' is right: 'that daily share' is wrong.

    As to dictionaries of the present day, that swell every few years by the thousand items, the presence of a word in one of them shows merely...—R. G. White.

    The sandy strip along the coast is fed only by a few scanty streams, that furnish a remarkable contrast to the vast volumes of water which roll down the Eastern sides.—Prescott.


    'That' and 'which' should change places.

    The social and economic sciences, that now specially interest me, have no considerable place in such a reform.—Times.


    If this is a defining clause, excluding 'the social and economic sciences that' do not interest the writer, the comma after 'sciences' should be removed.

  2. 'Who' or 'which' should not be used in defining clauses except when custom, euphony, or convenience is decidedly against the use of 'that'. The principal exceptions will be noted below; but we shall first give instances in which 'that' is rightly used, and others in which it might have been used with advantage.

    In those highly impressionable years that lie between six and ten...—Spectator.

    The obstacles that hedge in children from Nature...—Spectator.

    The whole producing an effect that is not without a certain poetry.—Times.

    He will do anything that he deems convenient.—Borrow.

    The well-staffed and well-equipped 'High Schools' that are now at work ... had not yet sprung into being.—Times.

    Then, Sir, you keep up revenue laws which are mischievous, in order to preserve trade laws that are useless.—Burke.


    'That' should have been used in both clauses.

    The struggle that lay before him.—J. R. Green.

    There goes another sort of animal that is differentiating from my species...—H. G. Wells.

    There are other powers, too, that could perform this grateful but onerous duty.—Times.


    In the following examples, 'that' is to be preferred to 'which'; especially with antecedent 'it', and after a superlative or other word of exclusive or comprehensive meaning, such as 'all', 'only', 'any'.

    The opportunities which London has given them.—Times.

    The principles which underlay the agreement.—Times.

    One cause which surely contributes to this effect has its root in early childhood.—Spectator.

    A meeting which was held yesterday, which consisted in the main of a bitter personal attack.—Rosebery.


    'Which consisted' is right: but we should have 'that was held'; the clause defines.

    The first thing which the person who desires to be amiable must determine to do is...—Spectator.

    The most abominable din and confusion which it is possible for a reasonable person to conceive.—Poe.

    Reverential objections, composed of all which his unstained family could protest.—Meredith.

    He required all the solace which he could derive from literary success.—Macaulay.

    All the evidence which we have ever seen tends to prove...—Macaulay.

    A battle more bloody than any which Europe saw in the long interval between Malplaquet and Eylau.—Macaulay.

    The only other biography which counts for much is...—Times.

    The French Government are anxious to avoid anything which might be regarded as a breach of neutrality.—Times.

    It was the ecclesiastical synods which by their example led the way to our national parliaments.—J. R. Green.

    It is the little threads of which the inner substance of the nerves is composed which subserve sensation.—Huxley.


    'Of which' in a defining clause is one of the recognized exceptions; but we ought to have 'that subserve'.

    It is not wages and costs of handling which fall, but profits and rents.—Times.

    It has been French ports which have been chosen for the beginning and for the end of his cruise.—Times.

    Who is it who talks about moral geography?—E. F. Benson.


  3. We come now to the exceptions. The reader will have noticed that of all the instances given in (2) there is only one—the last—in which we recommend the substitution of 'that' for 'who'; in all the others, it is a question between 'that' and 'which'. 'That', used of persons, has in fact come to look archaic: the only cases in which it is now to be preferred to 'who' are those mentioned above as particularly requiring 'that' instead of 'which'; those, namely, in which the antecedent is 'it', or has attached to it a superlative or other word of exclusive meaning. We should not, therefore, in the Spectator instance above, substitute 'the person that desires' for 'who desires'; but we should say

    The most impartial critic that could be found.
    The only man that I know of.
    Any one that knows anything knows this.
    It was you that said so.
    Who is it that talks about moral geography?


    Outside these special types, 'that' used of persons is apt to sound archaic.

  4. It will also have been noticed that all the relatives in (2) were either in the subjective case, or in the objective without a preposition. 'That' has no possessive case, and cannot take a preposition before it. Accordingly 'the man that I found the hat of' will of course give place to 'the man whose hat I found'; and 'the house in which this happened' will generally be preferred to 'the house that this happened in'. The latter tendency is modified in the spoken language by the convenient omission of 'that'; for always in a defining clause, though never in a non-defining, a relative in the objective case, with or without a preposition, can be dropped. But few writers like, as a general rule, either to drop their relatives or to put prepositions at the end. 'The friends I was travelling with', 'the book I got it from', 'the place I found it in', will therefore usually appear as

    The friends with whom I was travelling.
    The book from which I got it.
    The place in which I found it.


  5. Euphony demands that 'that that' should become 'that which', even when the words are separated; and many writers, from a feeling that 'which' is the natural correlative of the demonstrative 'that', prefer the plural 'those which'; but the first example quoted in (2) seems to show that 'those ... that' can be quite unobjectionable.

  6. A certain awkwardness seems to attend the use of 'that' when the relative is widely separated from its antecedent. When, for instance, two relative clauses are coordinate, some writers use 'that' in the first, 'which' in the second clause, though both define. This point will be illustrated in c., where we shall notice that inconsistency in this respect sometimes obscures the sense.

    It may seem to the reader that a rule with so many exceptions to it is not worth observing. We would remind him (i) that it is based upon those palpable misuses of the relatives about which every one is agreed; (ii) that of the exceptions the first and last result from, and might disappear with, the encroachment of 'who' and the general vagueness about the relatives; while the other two, being obvious and clearly defined, do not interfere with the remaining uses of 'that'; (iii) that if we are to be at the expense of maintaining two different relatives, we may as well give each of them definite work to do.

    In the following subsections we shall not often allude to the distinction here laid down. The reader will find that our rules are quite as often violated as observed; and may perhaps conclude that if the vital difference between a defining and a non-defining clause were consistently marked, wherever it is possible, by a discriminating use of 'that' and 'which', false coordination and other mishandlings of the relatives would be less common than they are.


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