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The general rule for choosing between "which" and "that" is that the first should be used only for independent clauses.(see for instance these three sources 1, 2, 3) Yet, especially in old books, I often come across the word "which" in clauses that are not independent. For instance, I'm reading a book by an English scholar who seems to use ONLY the word which. Here a few examples:

"The Greek hero-legends are full of myths which have this ritual origin."

"On the other hand, the king is still regarded by others as a mere depositary of social authority—a temporary embodiment of a power which existed before him."

"In the mortal soul we find again the same combination of blood and mana which composed the sympathetic continuum of primary magic."

I really could go on forever with examples. This book is ridden with this use of "which". Can anyone tell me why? Is perhaps this use more archaic or literary?

  • The sentences you quoted are unremarkable non-archaic English. The only conclusion available is that your general rule is invalid, or that you are interpreting it incorrectly. – Jack O'Flaherty Mar 16 at 16:35
  • I've heard of no such rule. I don't know who told you that, but I think it's false. These sentences are perfectly fine, nor are they archaic. They are in formal English. In spoken/informal English we tend to use "that" more often than "which" in such sentences, but this isn't a rule. Sorry about that. – Billy Kerr Mar 16 at 16:37
  • I found the rule in so many places! here an example: diffen.com/difference/That_vs_Which "Some grammarians extend the rule and insist on that being used only in restrictive clauses, while which should be used only in nonrestrictive clauses. For example: Wrong, according to strict grammarians: I need a book which will tell me all about city gardening. Correct usage: I need a book that will tell me all about city gardening. – Fra Mar 16 at 17:02
  • Here another example: grammarly.com/blog/which-vs-that – Fra Mar 16 at 17:05
  • Another yet: myenglishteacher.eu/blog/which-vs-that – Fra Mar 16 at 17:05
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This is one of those occasional cases where there is a rule on the books which is almost never actually observed or enforced in practice.

Technically, according to proper English grammar rules, you are correct: "which" is used to introduce independent clauses (which only provide additional side-information), while you should use "that" for dependent clauses (which restrict the preceding noun or convey essential information in some way).

However, most native English speakers do not actually know this rule, and in many cases even ones who do do not pay much attention to it. The choice of "which" vs. "that" for most people comes down mainly to a stylistic choice. As you've noted, even some prominent authors will use one or the other almost exclusively, or in some cases will deliberately (mis)use one or both of them just to fit a particular mood or feeling.

In general, you can almost always use either one for both dependent and independent clauses and nobody will think it strange or wrong (except some English teachers). It is good to know the rule, and it is a good thing to follow when writing formally (such as when writing academic papers, etc), but most of the time (particularly for casual stuff) it's not something you need to pay a lot of attention to, because really nobody else really does either.

(Oh, and to clarify, this is not particularly archaic or literary. I'd say it's actually probably more common to encounter this in modern casual speech/writing, but as you've noted, it's also not a particularly new phenomenon)

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The distinction is not between independent and dependent clauses, it's between restrictive and non-restrictive clauses. I didn't go through all of your links, but that is what your first link said. All of your examples are restrictive clauses, and so should be "that".

This rule is, as you note, far from universally observed. There are differing views on whether this makes it "not really" a rule. However, as it reduces ambiguity, I think it's a good idea to follow it.

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According to Grammar Monster, use of punctuation with the use of which is presented here:

When do you use a comma with which and who?

(1) Look at the clause that starts with which or who.

(2) If you'd be happy to put brackets around it or delete it, then use a comma.

(3) If you can't put it in brackets or delete it, then don't use a comma.

Here's a slightly longer explanation. If the information provided by the clause introduced by who or which is necessary to identify the person or thing it is describing (i.e., it's not just some extra information you could easily remove), then the clause is not offset with commas. When such a clause (called a relative clause) is necessary for identification purposes, it is called a restrictive clause, and the who or the which can be replaced with that. For example:

The car which hit the snowdrift is a write-off.

(which hit the snowdrift – restrictive clause, i.e., required to identify the car – not offset with commas)

The car that hit the snowdrift is a write-off.

(restrictive clause – which can be replaced with that)

Hope this helps clear up your misunderstanding of using which in place of that without offsetting within a sentence.

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