Which Switch

Why didn’t George Orwell sort his relatives out? I don’t mean his family: I mean his pronouns. In The King’s English (1906), the Fowler brothers say this:

The few limitations on ‘that’ and ‘who’ about which every one is agreed all point to ‘that’ as the defining relative, ‘who’ or ‘which’ as the non-defining.

Here are some examples:

• The cat that sat on the mat ate a rat. (Defining)
• The cat, which is three, never sits on mats. (Non-defining)
• The cat that you see on the mat eats rats. (D)
• The cat, which you saw yesterday on a mat, eats rats. (N-D)
(The third example can also be written without an explicit relative: “The cat you see on the mat eats rats.”)

But Orwell doesn’t follow these simple rules consistently in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). In the opening chapter of the book, you can find many defining relatives using “which”:

• …one of those pictures which are so contrived that the eyes follow you about when you move
• …a list of figures which had something to do with the production of pig-iron
• …an oblong metal plaque like a dulled mirror which formed part of the surface of the right-hand wall
• …the blue overalls which were the uniform of the party

But you can also find defining relatives using “that”:

• …his skin roughened by coarse soap and blunt razor blades and the cold of the winter that had just ended
• …there seemed to be no colour in anything, except the posters that were plastered everywhere
• You had to live – did live, from habit that became instinct – in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard (note implicit relative after “sound”)

Here Orwell uses “that” and “which” as defining relatives in the same sentence:

• Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it, moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard.

I can’t see any clear reason for the alternation, but it would be interesting to analyse the sentences more carefully and see if it’s possible to discover what conditions his use now of “which”, now of “that”. When I looked at the same phenomenon in the work of Evelyn Waugh, I found that “that” seemed to occur more often when the noun was governed by a preposition. That may also apply to Orwell.

Now let’s move from a particular writer to something more general. It’s possible to use a modification of the rules given above. If the noun and its defining relative are separated by several other words, I sometimes prefer “which” to “that”. Here’s an example from Orwell:

• He had a trick of resettling his spectacles on his nose which was curiously disarming…

The noun is “trick”, not “his nose”, so “which” doesn’t seem so bad to me, because it helps to disassociate the relative from the nouns that separate it from its antecedent. In its non-defining form “which” has what might be called a disjunctive role, and the disjunctive association is still there when it’s used as a defining relative. That’s why “which” doesn’t seem right as a defining relative when its antecedent stands directly before it.

But the possessive of “his nose” also helps to dissociate the relative, so I would also be happy to use “that” in this particular case. In the other examples, “that” is the clear winner (except perhaps in “an oblong metal plaque like a dulled mirror which formed part…”).

Do many foreign learners of English feel the same way about “that”? I doubt it. It must often be difficult to separate the three meanings of “that”: the demonstrative pronoun, the defining relative, and the coordinator. Not many foreign speakers of English would understand this sentence easily:

• It’s confusing that that “that” that’s a relative pronoun is written in exactly the same way as that “that” that’s not.

If English had a governing academy, we might spell the three thats differently: that, thæt and thatt, for example. And if I had my way, we wouldn’t use a digraph for the dentals. That is, the opening sentence of Nineteen Eighty-Four would look like this:

• It was a bright cold day in April, and ðe clocks were striking Þirteen.

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