Student Stumper 39: Can “that which” be used together?

QUESTION: Can “that which” be used together?

ANSWER: Hmm. It can, but why does is sound odd to my ears? That was my first reaction to a student’s question. My clue was his source.  He encountered the combination in a scholarly work. The statement he quoted also made use of “ofttime,” which is recognized as archaic in the dictionary. I recognized the presence of a relative clause, but I couldn’t readily place it in the context of any presentation I ever gave to students on this topic.

When I did a quick search online for uses of “that which,” I came across a written work by the political economist Frederic Bastiat. The publication date was 1850. The title? That Which Is Seen, and That Which Is Not Seen. I scanned the intro and found a variation: “…those which are seen, and those which are not seen.” (Bastiat. Click for full text.) I realize the text has been translated from French, but even so, the register and date gave strength to my belief that I was looking at a combination preferred in formal writing. The plural demonstrative pronoun those sounded slightly more natural before which in the restrictive relative clause, but I wouldn’t go so far to say that the combination felt familiar.

Biber’s study of registers shows the relative pronoun that is preferred in conversation and fiction, while the relative pronoun which has higher frequency in the news and academic prose (610-611).  Right. I knew that. What I really wanted to know was the frequency of the combination “that which,” so I read on. Aha! Biber and his team did address this point a few pages later in their discussion of relative clauses. They explain, “[W]hen the head of a relative clause is a demonstrative pronoun, the relativizer that is strongly dispreferred, as it would create a sequence of two identical or like elements” (616).

Although I’ve now seen a few examples of “that which,” I still feel the combination is not frequent enough to be highlighted in a grammar lesson.  I certainly wouldn’t create an exercise simply to put this combination into practice. However, with advanced students I would look at examples and consider alternatives to create wording that is more natural in conversation or everyday writing. Bryan Garner suggests this practice on his LawProse site in order to avoid phrases which he calls “stiff-sounding.” (Click for full article.) For instance, couldn’t we rewrite Bastiat’s title to read What Is Seen, and What Is Not Seen?

Because this grammar point was swirling around in my head for a few days, I almost used it in my own writing. I stopped before I did and considered my choices. I was expressing my sympathy to someone who had lost a relative. In offering my condolences, I shifted into more formal language. I first wrote, “May the love of your family be that which heals you.” I replaced it with, “May the love of your family be the very thing that heals you.” I think the first wording sounded more natural compared to Bastiat’s title because of the position of the head noun. In the subject position, “that [which]” sounded awkward. It lost some of that awkwardness in the predicate. But my substitution with “the very thing that” sounded even less stiff to me.

I decided to give more thought to combinations of other pronouns with relative pronouns. It would be useful to share with students Biber’s note on indefinite pronouns. His examples show the relative pronoun that is preferred to which (617), so I would likely say, “There is something that I want to talk to you about,” rather than “There is something which I want to talk to you about.” I also feel it could be beneficial to read proverbs in their traditionally formal wording and restate their meaning with more everyday English. Here’s an example with a subject pronoun + relative pronoun combination: He who hesitates is lost.  Couldn’t we simply say, “People who hesitate lose opportunities”?

Other fun proverbs to discuss and reword:

  • Good things come to those who wait.
  • He who lives by the sword shall die by the sword.
  • He who pays the piper calls the tune.
  • He who can does; he who cannot teaches.

Good quotes with “he that” combinations:

“He that cannot forgive others breaks the bridge over which he must pass himself; for every man has need to be forgiven.”

–Thomas Fuller, retrieved from:

“He that is good for making excuses is seldom good for anything else.”

–Benjamin Franklin, retrieved from:


Bastiat, Frederic. (1850). That which is seen, and that which is not seen. (Translated from French.) Retrieved from

Biber D. et al. (2007). Longman grammar of spoken and written English. Essex: Pearson Education Limited.

Garner, Bryan A. (2013, September 10). Garner’s usage tip of the day. Retrieved from

12 Comments Add yours

  1. Daniel says:

    Dear Jennifer,

    I have just tried to reword the sentences. What do you think about them? Thank you very much.

    Good things come to those who wait.
    →Who is patient will get good things.

    He who lives by the sword shall die by the sword.
    →People who do bad things to the others will eventually suffer the same consequences of what they did.

    He who pays the piper calls the tune.
    →The person who pays the money has the power to arrange something he wants.

    He who can does; he who cannot teaches.
    →Someone who is able to perform an act does it on his own while someone who is unable to perform it teaches others to do it.

    Best wishes,


    1. Hi Daniel,

      Thank you for trying this out. Perhaps our exchange can guide other teachers in this paraphrasing exercise.
      1. I’d use “people” in the first: People who are patient get/receive good things.
      2. I like your wording! It took more words to express the idea, but it’s definitely more conversational in tone.
      3. I like the use of “person” as the head noun. I think “one” is another alternative. I’d make one change to the ending and possibly omit “the money” since it’s understood: The person who pays has the power to arrange things as he wants.
      4. I think this one requires discussion in order to arrive at an interpretation everyone can agree on. I was thinking it’s more about teaching through real example and teaching only in theory: People who have real ability actually perform, but those who lack ability can only talk about how to perform.
      What do you think?

      Have a good week!


  2. Daniel says:

    Dear Jennifer,

    Thank you for your corrections! I have learnt a lesson!

    Best wishes,


    1. I’m glad it was useful, Daniel. I enjoyed exploring this topic, too, so thank you.

  3. Sept. 28, 2013
    Hi Jennifer,

    Fine thoughts you have bespoken. However, may I disagree most strongly? You said: “he who hesitates is lost. Couldn’t we simply say, ‘people who hesitate lose opportunities’?

    No, we should not. The thought loses its intended impact completely. We should not feel that we must change all the finest musings of our language traditions just to be more relevant. The past is there to teach us that we are not necessarily more modern or even more brilliant than those who came before us. We must not massage it to our liking. Ofttimes, we dost not needest to sayest what dost not needest to be said.


    1. Hello Declan,

      Thank you for joining the discussion! You present a valid viewpoint. Using the original wording does indeed preserve the original intent and tone. I still think it could be beneficial to explore registers through paraphrasing.

      Somehow or another, this discussion brings to mind the idea of producing remakes of Hollywood classics. Although I prefer Judy Garland and cast in The Wizard of Oz, I must admit I enjoy tunes like Ease on Down the Road, too. I wonder how I’ll like the new version of The Sound of Music.

      In any case, I appreciate your taking the time to consider my thoughts and post your well-argued response.

      Kind regards,

  4. Hi Jennifer, nice to hear from you.

    I have now had a little chance to glance at some other writings you have posted. Although I take it that your blog is directed at children at school, with the intention to awaken enquiring young minds, which is admirable work indeed, I find that your handouts may be adaptable to adults learning English, an area in which I am interested. So I’ll be back reviewing your most interesting website again for sure! Some of your handouts might be very useful to me!


    P.S. My biggest goal in life right now is to rid English language speakers of “gonna, wanna, hafta, and donna – and maybe even LOL.” I tell you, in 20 years we won’t be able to understand anyone anymore if what I call this cellphone text “lazy-talk” keeps up! Now, THERE is a huge topic which might make an interesting blog entry for you!

    1. Hello again Declan,

      Well, your may have arrived here accidentally, but it was good fortune that you did! Indeed, I teach English as a second language. My YouTube name is JenniferESL. There is some overlap between L1 literacy and L2 instruction. I also embrace a good amount of communicative games, even with adult learners.

      I support your fight against non-standard spelling. Similarly, I’ve started a playlist of videos partly to combat the habit of writing in all lower case letters with no punctuation marks. That practice is all too common on the Internet. I was actually thinking of addressing Internet slang and text abbreviations in one of my Language Notes videos. To be honest, I actually don’t mind the convenience of LOL, FYI, and BTW, but I certainly wouldn’t recommend such writing in business emails. I encourage standard writing on my forum, but I model that light use of emoticons and abbreviations is acceptable in everyday writing.

      Enjoy the rest of your weekend. I hope you’ll visit here or on another platform of mine again.

      Kind regards,

  5. mlm247 says:

    In some situations the word ‘what’ is not the right word. This is the time to use ‘that which’. Not common in speech these days.

    1. “That which” indeed could be a preferred structure in certain sentences. I think it would be interesting to read a book on grammar structures that have declined in use. It could include examples in which those structures actually help clarify a thought. Who/whom could be a topic. Perhaps a look at reduced adverb clauses would fit in somewhere, too.

      Thank you for adding to the discussion.

  6. nguyengiau says:

    Hi jennifer
    My name is giau. I am really interested in your lectures which are usefull for me to broaden my knowledge english. Besides i also learn how to teach english easily.i very very admire you.

    1. Thank you for visiting my blog. Best wishes to you in your studies and your teaching! 🙂

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