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The following sentence is part of a famous saying called Hanlon's razor:

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity

I'm confused by the "that which". Why do you need "which" here? Doesn't "that" alone makes it a complete sentence?

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    A good question! The best way I can think to explain it is to read it like for "...that thing which is adequately explained..." but that's not a very elegant explanation for why it is the way it is. – stangdon May 4 '18 at 12:06
  • I am also not sure the usage of attribute to here. As I know from dictionaries, it's supposed to be attribute ... to .... Did I miss something about attribute to? Glad if someone can answer! Thanks! – dan May 4 '18 at 12:42
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    @dan - The word order is fine; the structure here is "Never verb noun", and the verb phrase is attribute to. – stangdon May 4 '18 at 12:52
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    @dan If you post that as a question, l'll write you an answer :) – Araucaria May 4 '18 at 13:37
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    @stangdon Ah, but it's not quite that simple. The prepositional Complement normally comes after the Direct Object: I attributed that to him and if you try and reverse it it normally sounds ungrammatical: * I attributed to him that, for example is definitely wrong. So there's some special circumstances which make it OK in the Original Poster's example sentence. :-) Interesting, isn't it! It's much juicier than it looks at first sight. – Araucaria May 4 '18 at 14:01
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Let's split this sentence up:

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity

First part is:

Never attribute X to malice.

You are saying malice is the cause for X, not malice is X.

Second part is:

X is adequately explained by stupidity.

So, malice is the cause for something, and that something can be explained by stupidity. Malice itself is not explained by stupidity.

Now consider removing the which:

Never attribute to malice that is adequately explained by stupidity. (Incorrect)

Two things have happened:

  1. You are saying malice is explained by stupidity; and
  2. You have lost the something that you were attributing malice to.

Neither of these was the initial sentence's intention.

In this sentence, "that" is acting as a noun. "which is adequately.." is a clause that qualifies "that".

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We attribute {an effect} to {a cause}.

We attribute {the record-breaking flood} to {the recent heavy rains}.

That's right, we attribute it to them.

We can also attribute to {a cause} {an effect}.

We attribute to the recent heavy rains the record-breaking flood.

That's right, we attribute to them the record-breaking flood.

That's right, we attribute to them it. ungrammatical

Instead of that last one, which we don't say, we'd say something like:

That's right, we attribute to them the fact that we have had a record-breaking flood.

or

That's right, we attribute to them the fact of the record-breaking flood.

or

That's right, we attribute to them that there has been a record-breaking flood.

So, to circle back to the original example about malice and stupidity:

Never attribute to malice as cause {that which can be explained by stupidity} effect

The noun-phrase that which can be explained by stupidity begins with the pronoun that. The pronoun is followed by an integral or specifying relative clause.

I am just guessing, but I think it is the specifying function of the relative clause which allows the noun-phrase to be used as the effect there, when a mere pronoun like it or that does not suffice, because with the fully specified effect there is no anaphoric ambiguity.

But that's probably a bad guess, since in my example with the rains and the flood, the grammatical number of the pronouns is not the same, so there should be no anaphoric ambiguity.

  • I'm also wondering if it is correct to say "Never attribute that which is adequately explained by stupidity to malice." Thanks! – dan May 5 '18 at 0:12
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    @dan, that is grammatical, but the length of the noun-phrase (that which..stupidity) makes postponing the prepositional phrase (to stupidity) somewhat cumbersome. The order of the constituents will be reversed to avoid that situation. – Tᴚoɯɐuo May 5 '18 at 11:19
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Let me try to refer to your question in a language similar to the text in question:

That which makes you confused, you should strive to understand

Which is a somewhat stylized way of saying "You should try to understand anything (or: something) which makes you confused."

Stated another way, that which can be exchanged with whatever. The text above would become:

Never attribute to malice whatever is adequately explained by stupidity.

Note that the construct "that which" can have a slightly different meaning, which can be rephrased as the one that. With this meaning it appears after a comma - as a description of something stated previously.

"That which" is the subject of several other questions (in these two meanings):

  1. In Tales of Count Lucanor, what's 'that' in 'that which'? (from Tales of Count Lucanor, originally in Spanish)
  2. Do you use the phrase "that which" for the apposition? (here the second meaning is discussed)
  3. that which belongs to or is connected with her - In this case, "that which" is used in a dictionary within the definition of "hers", with the meaning something that
  4. weep "to have" that which it fears to lose, used by Shakespeare
  5. That which doesn't kill you (Note this fine answer)

The phrase "that which" is not used in casual speech, but it is common in often-cited quotes (I suspect it comes from Latin and romance languages). See this list on Wikiquotes for many examples.

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  1. Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

This sentence uses difficult grammar. A student could look at this sentence and think there is a noun phrase which looks like this:

  • malice that which is adequately explained

This would be a very odd noun phrase. It would look a bit like a noun followed by a relative clause. But this relative clause would have two relative words that and which. However, as the Original Poster says, this would not be grammatical. We cannot use that and which together as relative words for a single relative clause.


Let's look at how the sentence works. This sentence has an unusual word order. We normally say:

  • attribute something to X

Here X can be a person or a thing:

  • We attributed [this quote] [to Shakespeare]
  • We attributed [the poor attendance] [to the weather]

If we attributed something to X, it means that we thought this thing belonged to X, or was caused by X. So in the examples above, we thought the quote was Shakespeare's and we thought the poor attendance was caused by the weather.

The Original Poster's example

The example sentence puts these phrases the other way round for special effect (and there are special grammatical reasons why the writer can do this). It uses the structure:

  • attribute [to X] [something]

If we put the phrases in the normal order the sentence looks like this:

  1. Never attribute [that which is adequately explained by stupidity] [to malice].

There the Direct Object of the clause is:

  • that which is adequately explained by stupidity

Here the word that is being used like a pronoun. It is the same word we find in sentences like That is beautiful. It is not the same word as relative that. The writer could have used a different pronoun here. He could have used something and written this instead:

  • something which is adequately explained by stupidity

We can see from this that the relative clause here is:

  • which is adequately explained by stupidity

This relative clause explains what the word that refers to.

The sentence means something like:

Don't blame a problem which can be explained by stupidity, on malice.

In other words, the sentence is saying that if we have a problem we often think that somebody caused that problem to be nasty or to cause harm. However, if it possible that somebody was stupid and just made a mistake, that is a better explanation for the problem.

In everyday speech we don't hear many sentences using that followed by a relative clause. However, we see this happening a lot in literature. Here is a quote attributed to Nietche:

  • That which doesn't kill us makes us stronger.

(Personally, I don't think this quote is true. Hiccups don't kill you, but they don't make you stronger! Neither do rabbits)

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No, you need the which here. If you simply have that, then you are trying to use it as a subject, and splitting the sentence in two as a result.

Never attribute to malice that is adequately explained by stupidity.

  1. Never attribute to malice, that. (Or, "Never attribute that to malice")

  2. That is adequately explained by stupidity.

You could add another that in the sentence to make it correct:

Never attribute that to malice, that is adequately explained by stupidity.

However, it sounds clunky, and only encompasses one value.

If this explanation still leaves you confused I apologize. This can be a very difficult expression to understand. Fortunately, it isn't commonly used anymore.

As a side note, you could also substitute what in for that which:

Never attribute to malice what is adequately explained by stupidity.

  • Without the "which", the sentence reads like the "that" is the subject of "that is adequately explained by stupidity". Your example with the second "that" is a comma splice and not a single simple sentence. – eques May 4 '18 at 17:37
  • @eques True, I added a comma to make the sentence grammatically correct and another line to make it clearer. – Abel May 4 '18 at 17:52
  • You just made it worse... "Never attribute to malice, that" That wasn't the sentence I was referring to. That sentence isn't grammatical anyways. "Never attribute that to malice, that is adequately explained by stupidity." this is the comma splice – eques May 4 '18 at 18:41
  • @Abel, The first part of your answer (up to first yellow box) shows a wrong way of interpreting the sentence - and then explains it as if it were right. This is indeed very confusing. I tried to think of a way to improve this part - the only thing I can suggest is removing the "explanation" (the numbered lines) and adding "(incorrect)" after the first line. – laugh May 4 '18 at 19:45
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I think urnonav's answer is spot on. I'll just add that in the example sentence:

That is a demonstrative pronoun (the "pointy" pronoun)
Which is a relative pronoun (used to introduce a relative clause)

As a point of interest the sentence would still be grammatically correct (if stylistically impoverished) if you doubled that:

Never attribute to malice that that is adequately explained by stupidity.

In this case, the first that is still a demonstrative pronoun and the second that is a relative pronoun.

Another way it might help to look at this is to consider that this sentence is made up of two clauses. Clauses are grammatically complete sentences. The part of the sentence before the relative clause needs to be a complete sentence. And the relative clause itself must have a subject.

Because attribute is a transitive verb, it must have an object to make a complete sentence. (Malice is the object of "to," so it doesn't satisfy this requirement.) Therefore, this is not a complete sentence:

Never attribute to malice.

So in the original sentence, "that" is the object in the first clause. Which is required as a subject in the second clause.

Edit: Because Snailboat made the interesting argument in comments that using "that that" in this sentence would be either ungrammatical or grammatically nonstandard, I'm adding some supporting evidence for my position.

I'll begin with some examples of this grammatical usage from what I would say are "standard" sources. All of the following have that as a demonstrative pronoun followed by that introducing a relative clause (and the second that could be replaced by which in any of them, but the writers did not choose to do so):

From a purely grammatical perspective, both of the following are complete grammatical sentences:

I like something.
I like that.

The following is also a complete grammatical sentence where a restrictive clause has been added to the first sentence:

I like something that is red.

Many people would argue that substituting which for that in the previous sentence would be perfectly fine, and I'm not taking a stance on the "that vs. which debate." But I don't believe anyone would argue that that is grammatically incorrect in that sentence.

If we take that as true, then it follows that exactly the same grammatical rules apply if you make the following sentence:

I like that that is red.

You could certainly argue that it's stylistically clunky or that it's much less common usage than saying either of the following:

I like what is red.
I like that which is red.

However, from a pure perspective of grammatical rules, I don't see any way to argue that "I like that that is red" is grammatically incorrect, since the second "that" serves precisely the same grammatical function that it did in "I like something that is red."

  • It's interesting that some speakers accept that that in this context, and I'm sure you're not alone in that judgment, but I don't think most speakers would accept it as grammatical. – snailboat May 7 '18 at 10:14
  • @snailboat Do you have any research to back up that opinion? Everything I can find backs up that most speakers accept "that that" as grammatical in this context (although rarely preferable). Some reasonably intelligent-seeming people on a proofreading site, for one example: painintheenglish.com/case/488. If you think that that would be ungrammatical here, would you also say it was ungrammatical if it were phrased like this in the plural: Never attribute to malice those that are adequately explained by stupidity? If not, what is the grammatical distinction? – joiedevivre May 7 '18 at 16:28
  • Well, it's certainly flatly ungrammatical to my ear. Geoffrey Pullum, author of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, agrees: languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2425 It's something of a moot point since native speakers never say it, so there's not too much point in analyzing it. In previous discussions on this topic, I haven't run into many people who found *that that grammatical, but I haven't done any wide-scale surveys or anything like that, if that's what you mean by "research". – snailboat May 7 '18 at 16:37
  • @snailboat I don't see any arguments in the article you linked saying "that that doesn't kill you" is wrong, simply not stylistically preferable. For certain, your assertion that no native speakers say it seems incorrect. All you have to do is read the comments in the article you linked to find several examples of native speakers who think it is okay. (I mean, I don't know if Kanye West would be a considered a paragon of style, but I'm pretty sure he's a native speaker.) ;) – joiedevivre May 7 '18 at 16:50
  • Oh, I see. Last time I looked for corpus evidence I could find literally none. I guess I can revise my position to 'non-standard' then; perhaps grammatical for some speakers, but not others. Thanks for pointing that out :-) – snailboat May 7 '18 at 16:56

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