I've been examining the privately compiled media English corpus, and realized that the restrictive relative pronoun which (as in the example below) is hardly observed.

Example: I have a book which my father gave me.

This observation reminds me of Dr. Fowler, who in his MEU1 [A Dictionary of Modern English Usage], strongly says that we should avoid it.

In the contemporary English grammar, how much is it accepted?

Shin'ichiro Ishikawa


This is a question which has often occurred to me, too! When I was in school many years ago, I was taught that which is formally correct as a relative pronoun referring to things. But people have sometimes corrected my usage of which. They say I should use that as a restrictive relative pronoun and which only in nonrestrictive clauses. This is a signal to me that the English language is undergoing a change in this usage.

Of course, directly after a preposition, only which or whom (not that) can be used as a relative pronoun. For example,

That is the usage for which I have been criticized.

Barbara Matthies


The statement that Shin'ichiro Ishikawa makes is true—that which as a restrictive relative pronoun is not always used; some references suggest using that instead. In fact, there are current “rules” against the use of which in this function, which Barbara refers to, some of which are shown below.

However, there are also respected references and corpora which include and describe the use of which as a restrictive relative pronoun. These are shown below as well.

Some of the current style books which advise/ that advise not using which when “that” will do are:

  • The Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style, by Bryan A. Garner (Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 330:

    If you can omit the clause without changing the basic meaning, the clause is nonrestrictive; use a comma plus which.

  • The Chicago Manual of Style, 14th Ed. (University of Chicago Press, 1993, p. 168):

    A distinction has traditionally been made between the relative pronouns which and that, the latter having long been regarded as introducing a restrictive clause, and the former, a nonrestrictive one. Although the distinction is often disregarded in contemporary writing, the careful writer and editor should bear in mind that such indifference may result in misreading or uncertainty.

  • The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, by Allan M. Siegal and William G. Connolly (Random House, 1999, p. 329):

    Use that, not which, in a restrictive clause—a clause necessary to the reader’s understanding of the sentence.

All three references note the possibility of misunderstanding the meaning of the restrictive relative clause if which is used and the commas inadvertently omitted. With that there can be no such ambiguity. Compare:

(a) We liked the hotel which overlooked the lake.
(b) We liked the hotel, which overlooked the lake.

(c) We liked the hotel that overlooked the lake.
(d) I am slimmer than she is.

Sentence (a) (without comma) means that we liked only the one hotel, the one overlooking the lake; note, however, that the hotel is one among others.

Sentence (b) (with comma) means that we are talking about only this particular hotel. There may be others, but if so, this fact is irrelevant.

Sentence (c) means the same as sentence (a): that we liked only the hotel overlooking the lake, although there definitely was another hotel, or hotels, to consider.

All the references above expressed concern that if the comma were omitted by accident, or wrongly placed, the intended meaning of the noun plus its adjective clause could be unclear.

A wider, more accepting view of the use of which is shown by several reliable references, including the following:

  • The London Economist online: (http://www.economist.com/research/styleGuide/index.cfm?page=673903)

    Which informs, that defines. This is the house that Jack built. But This house, which Jack built, is now falling down. Americans tend to be fussy about making a distinction between which and that. Good writers of British English are less fastidious. (‘We have left undone those things which we ought to have done.’)”

  • Betty Azar, Understanding and Using English Grammar, 3rd Ed. (Pearson Education, 2002). This acceptance of which, along with that and no pronoun as a relative, is well-accepted and described on page 268. Among other examples are:

    The movie which we saw last night wasn’t very good.
    The movie that we saw last night wasn’t very good.
    The movie Ø we saw last night wasn’t very good.

  • The Collins COBUILD English Dictionary (HarperCollins, 1995), which defines which as a relative pronoun this way:

    You use which at the beginning of a relative clause when specifying the thing that you are talking about or when giving more information about it.

    Examples in the COBUILD include:

    Soldiers opened fire on a car which failed to stop at an army checkpoint.

    I’m no longer allowed to smoke in any room which he currently occupies.

  • The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (Houghton Mifflin, 1996). It, too, includes which as a relative pronoun in a restrictive adjective clause:

    The movie which was shown later was better.

  • The Collins COBUILD online (http://titania.cobuild.collins.co.uk/cgi-bin/democonc), in its sample result of a search for which, shows 10 examples of which as a restrictive relative pronoun. Three of them are:

    The CBG is a new fund-raising body which aims to defend the interests of…

    …a mistake which is easily made…

    …were to experience the same thrills which made Raleigh so memorable…

The other 30 examples of which in the sample appear in (a) non-restrictive relative clauses, such as “…by the set, design and costumes, which recreate ancient China”; (b) directly after prepositions, such as “…adviser is competent in the area in which you specifically want advice”; (c) after a quantity expression with “of,” such as “…a number of things, one of which is….”

There is no question about the use of which in these three cases; it is the only correct relative pronoun. While a modern tendency, or prescription, may be to avoid which in restrictive relative clauses, this is certainly not universally accepted, nor, in the opinion of this writer, should it be. To make clear whether the information is necessary to describe the noun in a restrictive clause, use that or which with NO comma and NO slight pause in speech. To add extra information in a nonrestrictive clause, be careful to add a comma in writing; in speaking, a slight pause often comes naturally.

A different issue about the use of which concerns the degree of formality desired: which is more formal than that.


Return to the Key Word Index