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Nonrestrictive is Restricting my Style

If we could just remove 'that' from the dictionary, we would have restrictive no more

First, why did I name this section Verbal SophistryBasically, an intent to deceive. We wouldn't want to do that, would we? It's just too restrictive. ? Maybe the reason will become clearer to you as we progress.

Now, what is wrong with the following sentence: The house which Jack built.
Since this common sentence fragment (wherever it came from) is usually seen correctly, it probably jumps right out at you that the conjunction it needs is that rather than which.

Another, equally valid way to begin to construct that sentence, is this: The house, which Jack built . Note that adding the comma after house made it more apparent that the sentence is not complete, that it is a sentence fragment. It needs, at the very minimum, a verb. The house, which Jack built in 1950, is still standing.
In this case, the verb phrase is still standing is necessary to complete the thought (unless we want to go mystical—"The house just is."), and in this case we added a predicateBut, since you're curious, the predicate is the verb, and with the subject constitutes the two main constituents in the majority of English sentences. —but don't worry about the terminology. I'll go lightly on it (now).

Let us go back to the other, equally valid (under the right circumstances), conjunction which: The house that Jack built.
What is the difference between those two conjunctions (also known as relative pronouns because they both introduce relative clausesa subordinate clause modifying a noun after nonhuman antecedents) "that" and "which", and when is either one used?

The two words are not interchangeable. Each has its place in almost every situation. I like to use the common sentence fragment about Jack and his house because it illustrates the difference between the two relative pronouns, that and which.

Of course, they do have something in common. Both, being relative pronouns, introduce clauses. The house that Jack built is green.
In the above example, you know that we're talking about the green house that Jack built. We are not talking about the blue house next door that Jack built nor about the green house next to it that Amy built; we are talking about the green house that Jack built.

This relative clause that Jack built is restrictive, because it is referring only to that one green house built by Jack, and so it comes unadorned by commas and introduced by that. Why? It is the English convention. But think of it this way. That kind of clause adds specific information; it is restrictiveHere is a simple (arguably simpleminded) way to keep them straight. The word "restrictive" is shorter than the word "nonrestrictive"; the restrictive word "that" is shorter than the nonrestrictive word "which". . The house, which Jack built, is green.
Now the relative clause which Jack built is not essential to the subject matter, which is a green house; it adds the information that Jack built it, but that information is, in effect, an aside. Extra, nonessential information.

This relative clause, set off by commas, is nonrestrictive. It is not essential to the subject matter; in fact, you could remove everything between and including the two commas, and the meaning of the sentence would remain. That makes it nonrestrictive—it does not restrict the meaning of the remainder of the sentence.

Seldom will you see the word "that" introducing a properly punctuated (with commas) nonrestrictive clause: The house, that Jack built, is green.
You will see the other, equally wrong, variation. The house which Jack built is green.
There is little argument about use of which in nonrestrictive clauses, although I have noticed a distinct tendency for omitting the commas, thus removing the hallmark of the nonrestrictive clause and making it look restrictive. Actually I just think it makes it look ignorant. But I never claimed to be without my prejudices.

In fact, I will elaborate a little bit on this tendency (omitting commas, not committing prejudices).

I have a theory (not a dream) about substitution of which for that in writing. (This pertains to American English only; the Brits have it all wrong, they positively insist on being wrong, and in effect have done the deed, erasing "that" from the dictionary as a relative pronoun in the restrictive sense. This is a shame, as they otherwise have such admirable qualities, such as those charming English accents.)

My theory (about the increasing tendency in American English to use which wrongly in place of that in nonrestrictive clauses) is that people, unfamiliar with acceptable grammatical attire, are beginning to think that which is more upper-class, more sophisticated than the lowly that.

What makes that so lowly? I could not begin to say. I think it is a perfectly fine word, perfect for its use as a relative pronoun introducing a restrictive clause. Remember, you could not remove a restrictive clause from a sentence without changing the meaning of the sentence. (I didn't actually say that, but I did say that you could remove a nonrestrictive clause from a sentence without changing the essential meaning of the sentenceTherefore, I could argue that I implied that the converse would also be true. Now I'm starting to sound like a lawyer. But not for long. .)

Why is the distinction necessary? Simply, for more accurate written communication of your meaning.

When you don't distinguish between a restrictive and a nonrestrictive clause, your reader can not know whether the information in the clause is essential to your meaning. And that boils down to a subtle loss of meaning.

Or sophistry.

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