Following on my postings about that, which, Bellow, and Safire and about the Committee for the Certification of Good Writing, people have been writing me about versions of the That Rule in the style sheets of institutions that should really know better. Roger Shuy, in particular, wrote, somewhat sheepishly, about his sheeplike compliance for one of these institutions. In reply, I summarized for him what I currently know, and think, about the That Rule, and now I'm passing a version of this summary on to you.
Two of my correspondents have dealt with large, famous, venerable, and transatlantic university presses that publish extensively in linguistics (actually, I've dealt with these presses too, but I didn't have their style sheets to hand). In exhibit #1, which came to me on 5/3/05, the style sheet says sternly:
"That" will be used with a restrictive
clause; "which" will be used with a nonrestrictive clause and set off
This one comes to me from someone who has done copyediting for the U.S. office of one of these large, famous, etc. presses. I'm keeping my correspondent's name confidential, just in case there's a chance of more copyediting gigs in the future.
In exhibit #2, dated 5/8/05, the safely nameable Roger Shuy passes on a style sheet from the other of these transatlantic academic behemoths, a style sheet in which we are (merely) advised:
Generally use "that" not preceded by a
comma, in essential (or restrictive) clauses (i.e., clauses that are
essential to the meaning of the sentence) and "which," preceded by a
comma, in nonessential (or nonrestrictive) clauses (i.e., clauses that
can be omitted without altering the meaning of the sentence).
This is just to show that the That Rule lives on even in the genteel ivied walls of academia, not just in PSAT prep manuals and the like.
So, what do I currently know about the justification for the That Rule?
(It's one thing to promulgate a rule. How your formulation will be understood by your audience is quite another matter. The universe of "rules" of grammar and usage is peppered with unintended consequences.)
The underlying problem is that almost every English speaker's Sprachgefühl occasionally calls for restrictive which, and then the Relative Punctuation Rule can lead people to mispunctuate. (For the brief story on restrictive which, see the MWDEU entry for that; the studies mentioned there, and now a number of others, show that edited prose contains quite a lot of restrictive which.)
However, there are at least two cases where the That Rule isn't sufficient to fix the punctuation of relative clauses.
Here, the punctuation alone marks the restrictive/nonrestrictive
distinction, since (as is well known) that
is unacceptable in combination with a preposition:
The That Rule could, of course, be altered to exclude this case, by saying something like:
I assume that something like That Rule 2 is what the manuals have in mind, though how a student is supposed to figure that out, I have no idea.
The second case involves relative who(m). If there is ambiguity or
unclarity with relative which,
the same ambiguity or unclarity exists with relative who(m). The following contrast is
made entirely by punctuation:
You might expect the manuals to insist on restrictive that here as well as in the earlier
cases; it would, after all, fix any problem of unclarity. And
restrictive that is available:
The That Rule could, of course, be altered to explicitly apply only to non-human relatives:
Again, I assume that something like this is what the manuals have in mind, though, again, I don't know how students are supposed to figure that out.
I'd guess, by the way, that the standard That Rule actually ENCOURAGES people to use that in human relatives (against the intentions of the manual writers). More unintended consequences.
The proscription is one that's pretty easy to check for mechanically:
(There are a few cases where this sequence doesn't involve a relative clause, as in "I asked the man which (one) he wanted", so you can't be COMPLETELY mechanical about it.) The near-mechanical character of the rule in this form undoubtedly has contributed much to its popularity on tests of "grammatical competence", its endurance in style sheets, and its incorporation into "grammar checkers". An actual STYLISTIC CHOICE would involve judgment.
Note that the Which Hunting Rule works well only when the writing you apply it to is generally punctuated correctly. Which is almost always the case for the material that the venerable transatlantic presses' style sheets are applied to. That is, this fairly mechanical rule can be used only to alter the writing of people who are in fact making a stylistic choice between which and that; the effect of the rule is to limit this choice. That's why I object to it.
As for those who are less competent writers than I am, I think their problem in this domain is mostly one of punctuation, and that's where they need help. Trying to package the punctuation together with the choice of relative marker is a really bad idea.
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