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    That v. which: a grammatical throwdown.

    Philip Hensher

    June 25, 2019, 11:58am

    Two weeks ago, I decided that the novel I had just finished shouldn’t use the word and as a conjunction. Auden once wrote in denigration of his early poems that “the definite article is always a headache to any poet writing in English, but my addiction to German usages became a disease.” Elmore Leonard decreed that no writer should use the word suddenly, or any adverb to modify the verb to say.

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    The popular idea of a writer is of one who spends hours wrestling with grand themes and oracular truths. In reality, most writerly anguish is expended over questions of grammar and usage. These questions don’t present themselves, I suspect, in the form of a choice between correct and solecistic usage. Rather, a writer will think this: “Am I the sort of writer who would say that here? Or am I a which sort of writer?”

    Whether or not to use that as a relative pronoun must be one of the most fraught questions in any sensitive writer’s mind. It overlaps with a number of other possibilities. In theory, for instance, that and which have different functions. You are supposed to write She gave me the book that I wanted because the last three words are necessary to the meaning. You should write She gave me your book, which I liked very much, because the last five words don’t fundamentally affect the meaning or the structure of the first five.

    But it’s certainly not unidiomatic to say She gave me the book which I wanted. British speakers are just as likely to use it as that. American users of English, on the other hand, show a definite tendency towards that, to the point of sometimes declaring a British which to be absolutely incorrect. To a British speaker, on the other hand, this is often the sort of usage that falls into the category of an expressive choice. Grammarians who declare, for instance, that prepositions should never be used to end a sentence are helpless before the vivid juvenile user who asked “Mummy, what did you put that book we were to be read to out of away for?” Sometimes we might like to say The diamond which you gave me and sometimes The diamond that you gave me and sometimes, indeed, That diamond you gave me. Only a fool or a prig would intrude to limit expressiveness by asserting correctness here.

    That has a curious overlap with if and whether that demonstrates an expressive, rather than a rule-based usage. My impression is that, like the French verb bouger (“to move”), it is used more naturally in the negative. “Tell me if you are going to the pictures tonight” has a very different significance to “Tell me that you’re not going to the pictures tonight [with that dreadful boy].” The most clearly expressive usage choice, however, is as a pronoun governing people which can be exchanged with who.

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    There is no doubting the antiquity or the respectability of the usage of that. Though Shakespeare and the King James Bible use it (“I am that I am”), in recent years, it has probably been a more common usage in American English. The song “The Man That Got Away” in the 1954 version of A Star Is Born would have seemed perfectly correct; Mark Twain had published “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg” in 1899, and Edgar Allan Poe “The Man That Was Used Up” in 1839. British usage in this period markedly preferred who; it is unthinkable that two of G. K. Chesterton’s books, The Man Who Was Thursday or The Man Who Knew Too Much could have used that instead. Hitchcock used the second title twice for movies without change in 1934 and 1955. We can conclude that American usage was not very strongly in favor of that. It seems more of a possibility, however, than in British usage; if you said “I met the man that you’re marrying” to an Englishman, slight offense might be taken. Here and now, that has the flavor of a pronoun for things and not people.

    This speculation was set off by a writer friend, British by birth but resident in the United States, reporting a clash with the American preference for that. In an essay, she had written “The reason why I write . . .” The editor had changed it to “The reason that I write . . .” To me, and I think to her, this changed the meaning entirely. The job interview question “Tell me why you want to work here” is not the same as “Tell me that you want to work here.” There is an increasing pressure, I think, to use that when possible; it seems, in some professional circles, to mark a good, solid, well-made style. The curious thing is that in pursuit of this ideal, some writers and editors are capable of putting out sentences that don’t mean what they want to say.

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