That vs. Which


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Thread: That vs. Which

  1. #1

    That vs. Which

    This one is tricky and I sometimes mess it up, but "that" usually used as part of a "restrictive clause".

    Two sentences:

    "The dog that bit me ran away."

    "The dog, which bit me, ran away."

    The question is "is the fact that the dog bit you essential to its ontology"?

    It is a dog that bit you, or is it a dog which happened to bite you?

    If I want to describe:

    "...a creepy cathedral that was built of ancient stone," then I don't use "which". The cathedral being built of ancient stone IS the meaning; it IS important to its ontology in the story. You can communicate what important and what isn't using grammar.

    "...a creepy cathedral, which I had stopped to rest against, that was built of ancient stone."

  2. #2
    WF Veteran Bloggsworth's Avatar
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    Being ignorant, I tend to use "that" for inanimate objects - Mind you, I probably get it wrong some times, but find that the sound of the phrase a reasonable guide - I'll look up ontology when I can be bothered...
    A man in possession of a wooden spoon must be in want of a pot to stir.

  3. #3
    "The dog that bit me ran away."

    "The dog, which bit me, ran away."

    I would think they're both correct minus the comma before which. It is not used if the statement after is essential to the understanding.

  4. #4
    But if I say "that" I mean that the dog biting me is integral to its identity.

    If I say, "the dog which bite me", then the biting part is inconsequential to who are what the dog actually is.

    Grammar is bizarre.

  5. #5
    Global Moderator Squalid Glass's Avatar
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    "The dog that bit me ran away."

    Refers to the dog. It's restrictive.

    "The dog, which bit me, ran away."

    Mentions the bite as an aside. It's nonrestrictive.

    The context of this sentence determines its grammar.
    "I don't do anything with my life except romanticize and decay with indecision."

    "America I've given you all and now I'm nothing."

  6. #6
    "The dog that bit me..." means the biting is essential to the dog's being (Dogs bite people). But this can be speaker perception, not necessarily the dog's. "The dog, which bit me,..." means the biting is incidental. The dog could have done anything ("The dog, which was brown, ran away."). It just happened to bite.

  7. #7
    Exactly. "Essential to its being" is ontology.

    Already my writing has gained clarity from learning this.

    I can now include ontological perceptions in my prose.

  8. #8
    I have degrees in English and taught it for years and to this day can be stumped on whether a 'that' is a demonstrative pronoun or a demonstrative adjective. This particular usage an example of ontology? Hmm. I suppose in a much fuller context that might be a reading, but this seems a simpler situation.

    "The dog that bit me ran away." Try this fuller context: "The dogs in the street went crazy when they saw the fox. Most of them are still howling and snapping at anything that moves! I think six of them are in front of the store, but the dog that bit me ran away." No ontology here that I can see, just a straightforward identifier, a modifier of the noun 'dog', distinguishing his action from all the other dogs. It is restrictive. A demonstrative adjective . Biting may be essential to a dog's being, but in this context 'that' simply identifies one dog to the exclusion of all the other dogs.

    "Which' would not be grammatically incorrect, but it would be "not usual". The word is so often used in an interrogative mode, that kind of aura often hovers near it. I would instinctively shy away from it for that reason alone in this clearly demonstrative sentence.



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    "I believe in nothing but the holiness of the heart's affections and the Truth of the imagination". Keats, ​Letters

    "No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main . . . any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls -- it tolls for thee. " John Donne, Meditation XVII

  9. #9
    These answers are all kind of right, but all a little wrong.

    When the preceding noun phrase begins with "the", it promises identification. A comma turns off identification, so it can't be used when the identification isn't finished, and a comma is used when the identification is finished. A good example:

    1.There were nine men and one woman at the meeting. Jon sat next to the woman, who was taking notes. [good]
    2.There were nine men and one woman at the meeting. Jon sat next to the woman who was taking notes. [wrong]
    3.There were nine men and two women at the meeting. Jon sat next to the woman who was taking notes. [good]
    4.There were nine men and two women at the meeting. Jon sat next to the woman, who was taking notes. [wrong]
    So, one versus two in the first sentence flip-flops the comma usage in the second sentence. In #1, the woman finishes identification, because there's only one woman. So there is a comma (and #2 is wrong). In #3, the woman does not identify. Presumably there is only one woman taking notes, so who was taking notes finishes the identification and there can't be a comma (and #4 is wrong.

    That "rule" is a good place to start. If the preceding noun phrase begins with a, then identification is not promised, it's not as clear what is promised, and things are more complicated. (Or less obvious. And often not as important.) And comma-usage doesn't quite answer which versus that, or address when identification is ambiguous.
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  10. #10
    Love it when people use all the words, "It was that one which was the one what bit me", that, which, what. Maybe it's just a London thing.
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