I am trying to write a scientific paper in English, with a colleague, but we can not agree on the usage of "which" with respect to "that": he systematically used "which" in place of "that"! When reading the paper, I admit it is understandable, but at the same time the repetition seems strange (while "that" sounds OK to me).

What is the difference that makes me uncomfortable with "which"? What is the underlying intention of an author when he uses "which"?

As an example:

We present a model which shows...

(correct but "that" sounds simpler for me, and better).

Am I wrong? Any idea? And what if I suddenly decide to apply "which" in one sentence out of two ? Could a reader see this ?


2 Answers 2


As explained here, relative that may only be employed to head restrictive relative clauses, while the wh- relatives may be used with both restrictive and non-restrictive clauses.

Early in the 20th century the Fowler brothers suggested a “division of labor” between relative that and the wh- relatives: that that should be employed exclusively with restrictive clauses, and the wh- relatives exclusively with non-restrictive clauses. The Fowlers acknowledged that no such distinction was observed in use; but the suggestion was adopted by the authors of many influential style guides, who attempted to elevate it into a fixed “rule”.

In consequence, there are many quite literate people who believe that this is a rule, and who follow it in their own work. That, I have no doubt, is the source of your discomfort with the use of wh- relatives in restrictive clauses.

There are, however, just as many writers who do not follow this prescription, and the T/W question is to this day a running controversy among people who care about such things.

I myself follow a practice just the opposite of the Fowlers' proposal—I use wh- relatives in all contexts and almost never use that as a relative in any context, for reasons which I explain here.

But as I say in my answer to the question linked at the top of this post,

that’s my choice. You’re free to follow your own rule, as long as you don’t put that at the head of a non-restrictive clause.

So we can’t give you a definitive answer. It’s something you’ll have to work out with your co-author.

  • So, I need to decide for one rule ? Can I still apply "which" in one sentence and "that" in another ? Would it be annoying ?
    – JCLL
    Jan 18, 2014 at 22:44
  • @JCLL As long as you use wh- relatives with non-restrictive clauses you're OK. Somebody's gonna be annoyed whatever you do. :) Jan 18, 2014 at 23:37

In Relative Clauses, which is the type of "which/that" that is being used here, "that" can refer to objects (concepts)/things. "Which" only refers to objects (concepts). In fact, in Defining Relative Clauses, both are interchangeable, however "which" is considered the "official" pronoun for referring to objects, whilst "that" is split between objects and people. In Non-Defining Relative Clauses (see above link), we must use the "official" relative pronouns (who, which, whose, where, when).

Example: Defining Relative Clause:

He's the man who/that taught me to play the clarinet.

Example: Non-Defining Relative Clause:

My neighbour, who is approaching his nineties, is quite frail.

*We can't use "that" in the second example.

To refer specifically to your question, systematically replacing "that" for "which" is perhaps a bit unnecessary, but I certainly think that "which" - since it is one of the "official" pronouns - is safer option, catering for both D and ND Relative Clauses. It also provides a bit more of a formal context, as is necessary in a scientific paper.

  • 1
    Seems to me that your that/which opposition is unnecessarily restrictive; beyond OP's specific example it's really an opposition between that and the entire list of wh- relatives. Jan 18, 2014 at 14:52

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