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Recently, I asked whether the restrictive relative pronoun that or the non-restrictive relative pronoun which (plus a comma) should be used following a name:

Casa Loma consists of three main buildings — the Casa Loma proper, which is a seven-story Gothic tower, the two-story Hunting Lodge that once housed the home’s servants quarters, and a massive stable.

To my surprise, some people claim the above instance of "that" is acceptable. Wouldn't that debunk the distinction between the restrictive and non-restrictive relative pronouns? I don't know if they think so simply because they regard "the Hunting Lodge" as a common noun phrase. What about the following?

Why did the United States that had welcomed so many millions of immigrants for nearly a century suddenly become so fearful of immigration in the 1920s?

  • In your second example, the relative clause does not distinguish one United States from another: the narrator here is talking about the only country called the United States. So the information given in the relative clause is NOT semantically restrictive, but it is integrated. The reason for expressing it in an integrated relative relative is that has crucial relevance to the rest of the message: it was because the US had previously welcomed many immigrants that it raised the question why would it not continue to do so. – BillJ Aug 26 '18 at 9:02
  • Did you even read the link I attached to that question? – Tᴚoɯɐuo Aug 26 '18 at 10:50
  • @Tᴚoɯɐuo The link seems to argue against the distinction between "that" and "which" as a restrictive relative pronoun, but my question is about whether the non-restrictive relative pronoun (with a preceding comma) should be used. – Apollyon Aug 26 '18 at 11:21
  • In this particular case there is no concern that the lodge could be confused with another lodge, so there's no need for a restrictive/integrative clause; moreover, no matter how you punctuate the text, or which pronoun you choose, the clause would not be understood as restrictive, at least not without further context that establishes a need to disambiguate. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Aug 26 '18 at 11:30
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    Both that and which are used "in the wild" in non-restrictive contexts and a rule saying one is to be preferred over the other would not be a description of how they are used but a prescription specifying how they ought to be used. As to what is "acceptable", that may vary from editor to editor and from examiner to examiner. In your United States example, I take that as a pronoun not as a clause subordinator. But to my ear, that sounds strange when used of people, though a good number of speakers of AmE use it that way: The boy that wears the red hat. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Aug 26 '18 at 13:01
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Let's tackle your first example first (I've changed the name of Hunting Lodge to set aside your notion that "the Hunting Lodge" is a common noun phrase):

Casa Loma consists of three main buildings — the Casa Loma proper, which is a seven-story Gothic tower, the two-story Cabot Vicorage that once housed the home’s servants quarters, and a massive stable.

Let's ignore those comments on your previous question for a moment and ask ourselves which is more appropriate – that or which?

I'm going to quote from a Writer's Digest grammar blog to get one opinion:

The battle over whether to use which or that is one many people struggle to get right. It’s a popular grammar question and most folks want a quick rule of thumb so they can get it right. Here it is:

If the sentence doesn’t need the clause that the word in question is connecting, use which. If it does, use that.

The blog continues with an example, and explains:

Our office, which has two lunchrooms, is located in Cincinnati.
Our office that has two lunchrooms is located in Cincinnati.

These sentences are not the same. The first sentence tells us that you have just one office, and it’s located in Cincinnati. The clause which has two lunchrooms gives us additional information, but it doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence. Remove the clause and the location of our one office would still be clear: Our office is located in Cincinnati.

The second sentence suggests that we have multiple offices, but the office with two lunchrooms is located in Cincinnati. The phrase that has two lunchrooms is known as a restrictive clause because another part of the sentence (our office) depends on it. You can’t remove that clause without changing the meaning of the sentence.

My guess is that you read similar advice somewhere, and that's what prompted you to write your original question.

In your example, let's assume there is only one Cabot Vicorage (or only one Hunting Lodge), so, if we follow the published Writer's Digest advice, our choice should be which, because we can remove that part about the servant's quarters and not change the meaning of the sentence:

Casa Loma consists of three main buildings — the Casa Loma proper, which is a seven-story Gothic tower, the two-story Cabot Vicorage which once housed the home’s servants quarters, and a massive stable.

So, why are the people on ELL and on the Word Reference forum not immediately saying so?

I think the key part of the blog I've quoted is the opening sentence:

The battle over whether to use which or that is one many people struggle to get right.

In other words, most native speakers don't even think about whether or not they are dealing with a "restrictive clause" when they are talking. If they majored in English, a thought like that might momentarily cross their mind while they are composing an email and wondering if they should use that or which.

However, you keep leaving out a lot of key information. Unless prompted, you don't say where the sentence came from. You don't cite any English grammar rules. You don't mention what level of correctness you are striving for. You don't clarify anything about the Hunting Lodge. You just throw out some cryptic sentence and expect everyone to know which word should be used, so they start analyzing it by what "sounds" acceptable, and don't research it any further.


With that all said, the sentence in your second question should follow the lunchrooms example, using two commas along with the word which:

Why did the United States, which had welcomed so many millions of immigrants for nearly a century, suddenly become so fearful of immigration in the 1920s?

  • The fact that "the Hunting Lodge" is capitalized should remind educated, grammar-sensitive native speakers that they are dealing with a name and "which" (plus commas) is the choice, shouldn't it? – Apollyon Aug 26 '18 at 9:31
  • @Apollyon - Not necessarily. Unless there is good reason to believe otherwise, one could easily argue that a grammar-sensitive native speaker might wonder if "the hunting lodge" would be more appropriate, especially with "massive stable" being used generically in the same sentence. That's why it's so important to cite your source. If you've told me you're quoting from a Hemingway book, I'd assume Hunting Lodge is a formal name. If you're an amateur author asking me to look over your first draft, I might wonder if you've typed it wrong. – J.R. Aug 26 '18 at 9:40
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The rule, as I understand it, is "which" when the phrase is not required and "that" when the phrase is required.

"Why did the U.S., which ..., suddenly become ..." because the sentence would still make sense without the phrase: "Why did the U.S. suddenly become..."

"Casa Loma ... Casa Loma proper, which ..., ... Lodge, which ..., and a massive stable" because "Casa Loma ... Casa Loma proper, .... Lodge, and a massive stable" would make sense without any of the descriptive phrases.

In contrast:

"The U.S. was the last western nation that abolished slavery." Without the phrase, we'd have "The U.S. was the last western nation" which is a very different thing.

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