A case study in self-prescriptivism

Caution: Those of you who are not me might not find this interesting.

I’ve been thinking about the that-rule. Last year, some wise bloggers convinced me that it was perfectly fine to use ‘which’, as well as ‘that’, to introduce a restrictive clause, and since then I’ve been happily getting by without the rule. There’s nothing wrong or unclear about ‘this is the house which Jack built’. I still usually prefer ‘that’, but only on aesthetic grounds, and I have no qualms with anyone whose tastes differ.

I only found out about the rule in my mid-20s, when I was getting into editorial work and wanted to make my linguistic instincts more systematic and explicit. In the course of my reading, I came across the that-rule (among others). It seemed to make sense, so I made it part of my arsenal.

Silly boy. Oh well.

But I’ve been wondering: why did it seem to make sense to me?

To find out, I looked at my undergraduate dissertation: 15,000 words of my 22-year-old self’s cleverest writing. How did pre-editorial Tom handle his restrictive clauses?

Excluding the ones that were introduced by a preposition (these are cases in which you unarguably need to use ‘which’), I found 54 restrictive clauses: 42 used ‘that’ and 12 used ‘which’.

Then I looked a little more closely and found something more interesting. When the subject of the restrictive clause’s main verb was plural, I was more likely to use ‘which’. For example: “There are nonrepresentational aspects of experience which are not introspectible.” (It was philosophy of mind. Please don’t ask.)

95% of the singulars used ‘that’ but 63% of the plurals used ‘which’.

So, while I had clearly developed (without realising it) a strong preference for restrictive ‘that’, I’d also developed a moderately strong exception to it for plurals.

Maybe this had something to do with my knowledge of the demonstrative role of ‘that’ – you can say ‘look at that dog’ but not ‘look at that dogs’ – but I’m just guessing. I wonder whether this distinction is common in general usage, or whether it was just my own oddity. Does anyone know?

Anyway, when I came across the that-rule, it must have seemed right partly because it chimed with my majority practice. But by adopting it consciously, I let it override the exception: since then, I’ve used ‘that’ for singular and plural alike. (I just searched a few months’ worth of blog posts from my late 20s: not a single unprepositioned restrictive ‘which’.)

And even though I’ve now junked the rule, the exception hasn’t survived. Following the rule for several years has shifted my aesthetic sense of what feels right – even though I no longer believe that there is a right and wrong here.

You could strike a wistful note, about how a pointless rule diminished the complexity of my language. But I don’t think this particular nuance was one of the ones that add any real richness.

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