About non-restrictive relative, "that"

I recognize the fact that there are a little sentences with non-restrictive relative “that” as the following example;

  1. That box, that had jewels in, was stolen.

We can substitute “which” for “that” as 2).

  1. That box, which had jewels in, was stolen.

Please tell me some hidden subtle nuances in 1).

I don’t think “that” can be used after comma.


You’re right. You might like to look at some material I’ve written on relative pronouns for the site:



Hello, Alan.
Thank you for your telling me your sites. I have already read the sites. I may feel the nuances different between which and that. :o

In informal spoken use, “that” can actually introduce non-defining relative clauses.

Example from the Cambridge Grammar of English (CGE):

And as you know, the meeting, that we’d never wanted anyway, was just foisted on us. (informal spoken)

Dear Molly
Thank you for citing the example. It seems very interesting for me. :o

You’re welcome.

Non-defining “that” and defining “which” are often to be found in older formal and informal writing.

Although non-defining “that” is still common in spoken English, there is a tendency nowadays among copy editors to replace non-defining “that” with “which” (and less often, to replace defining “which” with “that”).

The choice is stylistic, rather than grammatical. I suspect the tendency has its origins in the first edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage, where, after a long article in which the author argues for a strict division of duties between “that” and “which”, he nonetheless engagingly confesses that “it would be idle to pretend that it is the practice either of most or of the best writers”.


In the written form, you mean?

The choice by copy editors.


Dear MrPedantic

Thank you for your advice that the choice is stylistic. I have never heard about the Fowler. I have just known it is very famous as an English usage book. The following question occurs to me.
What on earth makes the copy editors choose the non-restrictive that?

Hello Sieger,

Generally, non-restrictive “that” is changed to “which” by copy editors, in books and magazines. This makes it fairly unusual, in modern edited English. However, in unedited English (e.g. emails, memos, self-published texts, etc.) you will still encounter it. Some people simply seem to tend towards using it.

Best wishes,


I think there is probably also a bit of a difference in usage between BE and AmE. It seems to me you’re more likely to hear a defining usage of ‘which’ in BE than in AmE. And the example that Molly gave of the non-defining use of ‘that’ sounds odd to my American ears.

  1. And as you know, the meeting, that we’d never wanted anyway, was just foisted on us.

It’s not a very good example. I wonder if the Cambridge folk have mistranscribed it. With dashes:

  1. And as you know, the meeting – that we’d never wanted anyway – was just foisted on us.

it seems a bit more “defining”.


Dear MrPedantic

I feel very sorry that you should change commas to dashes in the quotation. You look too pedantic. The non-restrictive that in the quotaition would sound odd for you, native speakers, since it is ungrammatical. But your oddness against non-restrictive that might make you feel something except “strange”.


As punctuation marks do not exist in spoken language, how would one choose whether to use dashes or commas when transcribing this?

And as you know/the meeting/that we’d never wanted anyway/was just foisted on us.

Hello Sieger,

I wouldn’t call it “ungrammatical”; here are two famous examples of non-defining “that”:

But it is less common in modern edited prose than non-defining “which”; that perhaps makes it seem odd.


In that case, how did the fellows in Cambridge choose?


I did not say one cannot choose, but questioned how one does indeed choose. You questioned the choice made in the Cambridge Grammar of English and offered an alternative. What was you alternative choice based on?

As daily we are supposed to be in touch with the spoken language more than the written, why would “that” used in non-defing clauses, seem “odd” when spoken?

Many years’ unwilling experience of unnecessary meetings.

My comment referred to modern edited prose.