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That which and what have equivalent meanings. Which is better to use in an academic context? Does it depend on the context, e.g. scientific report vs essay?

For example:

  1. That which comes from the above area is green.

  2. What comes from the above area is green.

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  • It depends on the context of the sentence you intend to put it in. Aug 24, 2021 at 13:07
  • Is it equivalent to 'the one which comes ...' or 'material emanating ...'? If the latter, I'd change the style. Aug 24, 2021 at 13:23
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    This doesn't seem to parse no matter which of those two is selected. It is not possible for anything to "come from the above the area". That's because the preposition from requires a noun phrase as its complement but the above the area is not a noun phrase. It does not appear to be a syntactic constituent of any recognizable sort whatsoever. You may wish to consider visiting our sister site for English Language Learners.
    – tchrist
    Aug 24, 2021 at 13:35
  • Could it be that you meant the above area and not the above the area?
    – fev
    Aug 24, 2021 at 14:16
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    I think you should say something like "Items which come from the above area are shown in green". It sounds more natural to be more specific, or include a placeholder like "things" or "items".
    – Stuart F
    Jul 6, 2022 at 13:39

2 Answers 2

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I believe this question should have stayed on EL&U, it was actually a duplicate of this question whose answer, however, merely states that that which is formal, without providing a reference. And I don't blame the user, it is not easy to find such a reference.

I did manage to find a comment on this in the CaGEL, p. 1036. After providing two examples:

  • [i] It would mean abandoning that which we hold most dear. [antecedent + clause]
  • [ii] It would mean abandoning what we hold most dear. [fused relative]

It goes on to analyse them:

These are syntactically equivalent (though [i] belongs to very formal style). Syntactically, that in [i] is antecedent, with which we hold most dear an integrated relative clause modifying it, but in [ii] what corresponds to that and which combined, so that it is not possible to separately identify antecedent and relative clause - hence the term fused.

So there you go, this reputable source confirms that that which and what mean the same, but are syntactically different, and that which is very formal. As long as your text is formal, regardless of the field or type of writing, you can use it safely.

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Your examples are not good examples of how "that which" is used in academic writing.

"That which" is used as an abstract stand-in for "anything and everything", and the intention is to be as broadly encompassing as possible, as the clausal complement of "which" will define the salient feature(s).

Here's a definition, for example:

Highway Litter: that which is lying scattered on the roadway proper or on the shoulder of the road; trash, refuse.

"that which" is used there to refer in the abstract to anything and everything that is lying scattered on the road or on the shoulder of the road, and that could be old mattresses, hubcaps, blown-out tractor-trailer tires, candy wrappers, soda cups, hamburger wrappers, plastic bags, newspapers, etc.

You only use "that which" when you need to be broadly encompassing and abstract and you are going to provide a clause explicitly defining the essential qualities of the entity.

"What" is somewhat informal. If you know what the specific thing is, there's no need to use "what" unless you're aiming for a casual style.

When the ocean temperature rises, what happens is ...

versus:

When the ocean temperature rises, the amount of water in the atmosphere increases, the sea-level rises as a result of thermal expansion, ...

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