If you don’t write much or don’t care about writing style, then the distinction between “that” and “which” is not likely of interest to you. The rest of us are divided among three camps:
1. There is no distinction between the two, and anyone who posits a distinction is a pompous pedant.
2. Failing to observe the proper distinction is a grievous error.
3. Observing the distinction generally makes your writing crisper and clearer.
I am mostly in the third category. I’m certainly not enough of an authority to pronounce on the second.
What is the distinction? When debating whether to start a clause with one of the two words, restrictive clauses should be introduced by “that,” and dependent clauses should be introduced by “which.” In the latter case, “which” should always be preceded by a comma.
What’s all this “restrictive clause” and “dependent clause” mumbo jumbo? Restrictive clauses identify the subject of the clause. Dependent clauses add description about an already identified subject. Imagine a line of cars. I might say, “I like the car that is red.” Or I might say,” I like the car on the left end, which is red.” In the first example, I have identified the car by stating its color. In the second, the car is already identified by its position, and the reference to color is just an additional description.
I think my writing has improved by sticking with the distinction. In drafting legal documents, failing to observe it occasionally results in ambiguity. Outside that context, I still prefer the distinction. You may believe and act otherwise, but there will always be some who find your writing poorer for that. If you observe the distinction, few in category one are likely to notice.
That itself speaks well of the rule. It is noticeable only when you don’t follow it. You should want your writing to communicate ideas without distracting the reader by the tools you used to accomplish the task.
When I was young, I often heard “never again” in connection with the Holocaust. I believed it. I was naive enough to think that mankind had learned something and that never again would any group be subjected to the horror of a Holocaust. Now I am older and know better. The Balkans and Rwanda, among other places, taught us otherwise. And now segments of society are turning again to the Jews.
In a recent anti-Zionist/anti-Semitic protest in Boston, among the demonstrators’ chants was “Jews back to Birkenau.” The chant itself shows the inability of many to separate anti-Zionism from anti-Semitism, and it makes my stomach churn to contemplate such evil. Let us be clear what these people are calling for:
All decent people must oppose those who would repeat this
Update–July 23, 2014:
See here for more on rioters chanting “Gas the Jews.” Unsurprisingly, this time it’s in France. There is no depth to which these people will not sink.
Update–August 21, 2014:
At Temple University, a Jewish student is assaulted and called a kike.
Apparently there are many types of brewers’ yeast, each of which has advantages and disadvantages. Genetic engineering offers the prospect of more advantages and fewer disadvantages. Better beer!
A British company has developed a “super black” carbon-nanotube coating. The picture shows the coating on crumpled aluminum foil. Note: All the foil is crumpled, not just the foil around the edges. But the coating is so black that the human eye cannot distinguish the crumples under the coating.
When you hear of Duke bourbon, do you think of Duke University or John Wayne? Duke bourbon exists, and Duke University is suing John Wayne’s estate for trademark infringement. As between the two, I think I would assume John Wayne, but the question is even clearer when you learn that the bottle for Duke bourbon looks like this:
U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes pithily opined on the differences between California and Texas. In a bankruptcy-related appeal, he observed: “This isn’t California. We don’t interpret contracts by getting naked and getting in a hot tub or talking about aspirations.”
The Chinese government requires that one have its approval to be a reincarnated Buddha. I’m not clear on the penalty for being one without approval. Government hubris is bad in this country, but China seems to be in a different league.
This picture is from a discussion of Argentina’s looming bond default. The words across the bottom declare that Argentina will not default. That said, and even though my Spanish vocabulary is limited, but I find it hard to believe that “defaultear” is a real Spanish word. It has all the earmarks of attaching a Spanish verb ending to an English word, a common practice in South Texas.