February 14, 2008

Weekly Language Usage Tips: that/which, ending sentence with a preposition

Posted in ending sentence in a preposition, that/which at 8:32 pm by dlseltzer

1) The first tip is the topic of many requests and is the answer to that age-old question: when to use “that” and when to use “which.” I’m not going to get into restrictive clauses and non-restrictive clauses because life is too short. The rule is simply this: if the clause following the “which” or “that” is necessary for understanding the meaning of the sentence, use “that.” If the clause is parenthetical (an aside) and is not necessary for understanding the thought being expressed, use ”which.”

The grant proposal, which is being submitted to NIMH, focuses on mindfulness meditation as a means of relaxation.
(The clause, “which is being submitted to NIMH,” is not essential to the meaning of the sentence; thus, it is parenthetical [non-restrictive] and calls for the use of the word “which.” While the clause in question may add to the meaning of the sentence, the sentence would be fine without it.)

The article that I wrote last fall is being published in JAMA.
(The clause, “that I wrote last fall,” is essential for understanding the meaning of the sentence [restrictive]­it tells the reader which article the writer is talking about; thus, it calls for the use of “that.”)

2) The second tip concerns the rule we all know so well: Never end a sentence with a preposition. Well, forget about it. If ending a sentence with a preposition is more graceful than not, go ahead and use it. Clarity, simplicity, and grace are what good writing is about. When I checked, both Columbia and Chicago agreed so I am not leading you astray. We all know the famous Winston Churchill line about ending a sentence with a preposition: “That is the type of arrant pedantry up with which I shall not put.” So relax, put you feet up and stop worrying about that pesky preposition.



  1. felicia said,

    1) Ralph Waldo Emerson used “which” prolifically throughout his essays; even when, by your rule, he should have used “that”. I just noticed this last night when re-reading several of his essays. Yet he is one of the most artistic and forceful writers I have ever read.

    2) Hooray for your 2nd point. I can’t stand movies that portray Harvard professors saying that sentences shouldn’t end in prepositions. Please – I graduated from Harvard, and everyone there ended sentences in prepositions. We are not that pretentious.

  2. howard said,

    You and your language tops are making filling me with self doubt! To wit: Split infinitive making me crazy:

    I had previously written:

    but changed it to the above, because it looked odd.

    Now, on reflection, I should have written:


    Leaving off the last bit. Notwithstanding the problem of starting the sentence with ‘this’, I think its improved & thanks are in order, assuming you agree!

  3. Matt said,

    The “that/which” divide is quite new for me.

    In school (Germany), we were taught not to use “that” in formal writing but always “which” (“who”). Thus, I assumed it was considered informal and have used “which” as a relative noun for both kinds of clauses (restrictive/non-restrictive) to date.

    The English speaking world itself seems to be divided on this controversial issue.
    – In line with DLS: http://www.worldwidewords.org/articles/which.htm; http://www.scribe.com.au/tip-w022.html
    – More “lenient”: http://www.wsu.edu:8080/~brians/errors/which.html [good page, clarifies many commonly made errors];

    I am a bit confused as to how to use relative pronouns now (surely also because I am reluctant to give up what I have learned and used for more than a decade now :-)).

    The gist of my argument is twofold:

    1. If commas are used with care and reason (no commas in defining/restrictive clauses), misunderstandings are unlikely to occur. However, the usage of commas is another contentious grammatical issue …

    2. One cannot use “that” with prepositions in formal writing.
    Ex. 1: They have torn down the house in which (not “that”) we lived. [in speaking maybe: “…house that we lived in”] Please correct me if I am wrong on this.
    Ex. 2: This is the method through which (not “that”) we have come to understand the dimensions of the problem.
    Grammatically, in both examples, the relative clause is defining, carries relevant information, does not require to be enclosed in commas, and one cannot use “that” (speaking left aside).
    Therefore, I argue that using “that” only for restrictive clauses without preposition is neither fish nor fowl: in formal (esp. academic) writing, almost half of all relative clauses go with a preposition.

    Even though I am regarded as fastidious by many native speakers, I do not seem to be sensitive to nuances here; yet so are even native speakers, and I am talking about those who deal with English grammar professionally.

    I am really interested to read the comments/replies on my remarks.

  4. Matt said,

    Rereading the last bit, I realised I should have said “neither are native speakers”. I changed the preceding sentences “ruthlessly” such that this sentence is now a bit out of context.

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