I was reading these 2 posts:

https://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2012/09/07/that-who-which/ https://www.grammarly.com/blog/which-vs-that/

And it seems that their authors are using non-restrictive clauses incorrectly.

Examples that threw me off:

  1. There are a lot of charities which need good advice.

  2. The horse, which she bought last year, is six years old.

  3. My bike, which has a broken seat, is in the garage.

In my opinion all of these should use "that" instead of "which", unless the person who has the bike has only one bike, and the person who has the horse has only one horse, which makes this information irrelevant. For "charities which need good advice", I have no idea why they used "which" at all.

So, why do these use "which"?

  • 2
    You seem to believe that restrictive clauses must use that. This is not the case: the only rule is that non-restrictive clauses may not use that. Jun 2 '19 at 15:49
  • @StoneyB, only in British English.
    – hey_you
    Jun 2 '19 at 15:53
  • From the article, "However, in US English, most authorities and guides recommend that you use that rather than which to introduce a restrictive relative clause".
    – hey_you
    Jun 2 '19 at 15:58
  • @hey_you Yes, that's the recommendation for restrictive clauses; it's a matter of style, not grammaticality.
    – Katy
    Jun 2 '19 at 16:01
  • @Katy, does "it's a matter of style" mean that Americans are trying to slowly introduce this as a rule?
    – hey_you
    Jun 2 '19 at 16:02

Any clause set off by commas is non-restrictive. Non-restrictive means that it you remove it, it does not change the meaning of the main clause.

1) There are a lot of charities which need good advice.

If you remove "which need good advice", the sentence doesn't really have any meaning. Therefore, it is restrictive. It restricts the meaning of "There are a lot of charities" to those which need good advice. [that or which can be used in a restrictive clause]

2) The horse, which she bought last year, is six years old.

If you remove the bit between commas, you still have a meaningful sentence:
The horse is six years old.

3) My bike, which has a broken seat, is in the garage.

If you remove "which has a broken seat" you still have a meaningful sentence.
My bike in the garage.

That only occurs in restrictive clauses and can sometimes be left out:

  • The cars that I saw on the street were black.
  • The cars I saw on the street were black.
  • All the cars that were broken down on the street were black.

About which and that:

Restrictive relative clauses are typically [bolding and italicising mine] introduced by that, as well as by whose, who, or whom. Note that in British English, the word which is often used interchangeably with the restrictive that:

✓ She held out the hand which was hurt.

This common British construction is not strictly incorrect in American English, but it is generally avoided, especially in formal writing.

Oxford Dictionaries on which and that

  • But you wouldn't say "There are a lot of charities which need good advice" in American English though, right?
    – hey_you
    Jun 2 '19 at 15:54
  • 1
    @hey_you There are a lot of houses which need a good paint job.
    – Lambie
    Jun 2 '19 at 15:56
  • According to the first link in my post, this is not a proper sentence in American English.
    – hey_you
    Jun 2 '19 at 15:57
  • @hey_you As a matter of grammar, your link is wrong. It's purely subjective and a matter of style, not grammar. The author of that source may not like it. And it may be more common to use that than which in a restrictive clause in the US. And if you follow common guidance in formal writing, you would likely use that rather than which. (Or if you follow a specific style guide that says to always use that, then that's what you should do.) But using which in a restrictive clause is never actually ungrammatical. Jun 3 '19 at 3:10
  • @hey_you From The Chicago Manual of Style: "Although which can be substituted for that in a restrictive clause (a common practice in British English), many writers preserve the distinction between restrictive that (with no commas) and nonrestrictive which (with commas). " Jun 3 '19 at 3:14

I don't really understand the first sentence, but I do agree that it should be using that instead of which.
In the second and third sentences, as you suggested, it is implied that the objects are being talked about in isolated focus (i.e. not part of a group of other horses or bikes), and, from reading the articles, I believe this is what was intended by the authors, in which case which is appropriate.

  • 1
    Intriguingly, if you don't understand that sentence, how can you then agree with the use of that instead of which? Jun 2 '19 at 14:20
  • 1
    Because i can see what type of clause it's supposed to be, even though it doesn't mean much to me. It's just that i'm at a loss for the semantics of 'many charities needing good advice', but that's not relevant to whether the statement is general or specific, i.e. restrictive or not.
    – ben
    Jun 2 '19 at 14:20
  • 1
    That/which are interchangeable though in 1) here that would sound better.
    – Lambie
    Jun 2 '19 at 15:32

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