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: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/t/thomasfull105218.html#vgTErzeeOhTjI1qH.99
“He that is good for making excuses is seldom good for anything else.”
–Benjamin Franklin, retrieved from: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/b/benjaminfr383794.html#u88d8jQWiOopqi68.99
Bastiat, Frederic. (1850). That which is seen, and that which is not seen. (Translated from French.) Retrieved from http://bastiat.org/en/twisatwins.htm
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 http://www.lawprose.org/blog/?p=2159