Wednesday, 28 April 2010

That? Which? We Can Never Understand

I grovel at your feet! I apologise most 'umbly for my absence! Such is the nature of college that we can be buried under an avalanche within an instant. There was no time to cry for help, simply to dig through a mountain with that felt like a spoon. I'm here now, though, and that's what counts. Hope you haven't missed me too much (!).

Since I've been gone, I've had one little grammar rule bugging me in the back of my mind. It doesn't make much of a difference in terms of clarity on communication, but I couldn't stop thinking about it. Namely, should I be using "that" or "which"? I know it's just a petty niggling, but it's very hard to get out of your head once it's in there. I'll give you an example...

"The money that he gave me was fake!"

"The money which he gave me was fake!"

Which of these is right? Maybe dealing with a forger isn't the best time to worry about details, but it's nice to know. To sort this out, let's start with "that". "That" is restricting, meaning that we'd use it to narrow down the things we're talking about. If we were talking about lots of money, some of which had been given to me by one man, then the first sentence works. "That" eliminates all talk of the rest of the money, and only focuses us on that particular pile.

"Which" is used to add meaning to something, and give a little more meaning to the sentence. To give it its proper name, it's a subordinating subjunctive, which basically means it starts a new clause. If we go back to the fake money example, imagine that these forgeries are the only money I could be talking about. Saying that they were given to me by a particular man is unnecessary, but it adds a little more information. It's the sort of thing a writer might use in a novel, just to add some extra subtle character. Let's reiterate this with some more examples...

"The tiger stood watching." - Basic sentence

"The tiger that had spots was actually a leopard." - Singling out an individual

"The tiger, which had been an outcast from birth, was actually a leopard." - There could only be one tiger/leopard to talk about in the first place, but the clause (in brackets) tells us more about it.

Think we're done? Wrong. As with every "rule" ever to exist, there's an exception. If "that" comes straight after a preposition ("on", "under", "within", etc.), then it becomes "which". Not that this is anything to fret over in everyday usage, because we all do it naturally by now. Still, I'm having fun with examples, so let's have another...

"The ice that he was stuck under was melting." - Works as a sentence, because it limits the ice we're talking about.

"The ice under which he was stuck was melting." - Also works, but because the preposition's in a different place we swap "that" for "which".

Got all that? Good, I expect a full essay by the end of the week. In all honesty, I doubt it'll ever matter if you slip up. After all, if you didn't know you were going wrong, who else will? All blog posts that are finished should be read and promptly ignored. This blog post, which has been finished by both writer and reader, is just one amongst many.

I'll leave it to you to work out if those last two sentences were accurate...