The Humble Petition of WHO and WHICH

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In 1711, long before E.B. White over-interpreted the Fowler brothers and sent out mobs of zombified prescriptivists to hunt down whiches, Richard Steele gave us "The Humble Petition of WHO and WHICH", The Spectator 78:

' The humble Petition of WHO and WHICH,
' THAT your petitioners being in a forlorn and destitute condition, know not to whom we should apply ourselves for relief, because there is hardly any man alive who hath not injured us. Nay, we speak it with sorrow, even you yourself, whom we should suspect of such a practice the last of all mankind, can hardly acquit yourself of having given us some cause of complaint. We are descended of ancient families, and kept up our dignity and honour many years, till the jack-sprat THAT supplanted us. How often have we found ourselves slighted by the clergy in their pulpits, and the lawyers at the bar? Nay, how often have we heard, in one of the most polite and august assemblies in the universe, these words, "That THAT that noble lord urged ;" which if one of us had justice done, would have sounded nobler thus, "that WHICH that noble lord urged." Senates themselves, the guardians of British liberty, have degraded us, and preferred THAT to us; and yet no decree was ever given against us.  …

Past LLOG posts on which-hunting:

"More timewasting garbage, another copy-editing moron", 5/17/2004
"Sidney Goldberg on NYT grammar: zero for three", 9/17/2004
"Which vs. that: I have numbers", 9/19/2004
"Which vs that: a test of faith", 9/20/2004
"Which vs. that: integration gradation", 9/23/2004
"Don't do this at home, kiddies!", 5/3/2005
"The people from the CCGW are here to see you", 5/7/2005
"Five more thoughts on the that rule", 5/22/2005
"What I currently know about which and that", 5/10/2005
"Ann Coulter, Grammarian", 10/7/2005
"Did which-hunting change the Laws of the Game?", 10/10/2005
"That which doesn't apply to English", 7/3/2010
"Which-hunting in uncomprehending darkness", 5/2/2012
"A quantitative history of which-hunting", 9/5/2012
"Preaching the incontrovertible to the unconvertible", 12/6/2012
"Reddit blewit", 12/24/2012
"A decline in which-hunting?", 7/25/2013

For an excellent summary, see Geoff Pullum's COHE column "A Rule Which Will Live In Infamy", 12/7/2012.

I should add that Steele's petitioners are not entirely honest in implying that their "jack-sprat" challenger lacked "ancient roots" — the OED gives examples going back to the 9th century of that "Introducing a clause defining or restricting the antecedent, and thus completing its sense":

c825   Vesp. Psalter vii. 7   In bebode ðæt ðu bibude.
858   Charter in Old Eng. Texts 438   Ðes landes boec..ðet eðelbearht cyning wullafe sealde.
c888   Ælfred tr. Boethius De Consol. Philos. v. §1 Ne sece ic no her þa bec ac þæt ðæt þa bec forstent.

(Though perhaps the relative frequencies were changing in the early 18th century?)

For some of the relevant history, see Joan Maling, "The Complementizer in Middle English Appositives", Linguistic Inquiry 1978. Joan's article makes it clear that as of 400 years before Steele's note, which that, which, and that could all be used to introduce both restrictive and non-restrictive relative clauses (and ø in restrictive clauses); and also that who was then used only as an interrogative, not as a relative pronoun. What happened between 1300 and 1700, especially in quantitative terms, is not (as far as I know) known; and as Joan observed in a note to me, "the lines of communication between syntactic theoreticians and historical linguists/philologists are not as good as they ought to be".

Update — more here.


  1. Robert Coren said,

    August 23, 2015 @ 9:26 am

    Has someone "cleaned up" this ancient text? The spelling an capitalization display a remarkably modern consistency.

    [(myl) Clearly yes — if you can find an online version of the original, please let us know. I looked, and came up empty.]

  2. empty said,

    August 23, 2015 @ 11:01 am

    How about this?

    [(myl) That's even farther from the original than the one I linked to, which was published (obviously after being edited) in 1802.]

  3. Y said,

    August 23, 2015 @ 1:10 pm

    So when did one use ðæt, and when ðet? Or is ðæt a matter for millenium-old prescriptivists?

  4. Guy said,

    August 23, 2015 @ 1:14 pm

    If we're going back to original usage, really we should be bringing back "þe", no? Then again, I've always assumed "þe" and "that" were from the same etymological source.

  5. Graeme said,

    August 23, 2015 @ 9:50 pm

    This petition is on behalf of the Whiches.
    Is it just me? Or did the petition succeed. Microsoft's grammar-checker often peevishly tells me to use 'that' instead of 'which', never the other way around.

    [(myl) That's because the grammar-checker has been enlisted into the zombie which-hunters robot auxiliary.]

  6. Jonathon Owen said,

    August 24, 2015 @ 2:31 pm


    It's probably just dialectal variation. I believe ðæt is Mercian while ðet is West Saxon, but I could be misremembering. It's been several years since I took Old English.

  7. Guy said,

    August 24, 2015 @ 6:16 pm

    @Jonathon Owen

    You're not getting into the prescriptivist spirit. Which dialect was right?

  8. Glenfarclas said,

    August 24, 2015 @ 9:13 pm

    Well here you go.

    It took me about five second — all I had to do was google "flighted by the clergy in their pulpits" (uh, sic).

  9. Glenfarclas said,

    August 24, 2015 @ 9:19 pm

    An important correction: I means "seconds."

    No, just kidding. Actually the important correct is that this essay is NOT by Addison, but by Steele. As I read the original at the link I gave above, I noticed the signature "R" at the end. Addison signed his essays C, L, I, or O; while R always indicates Steele.

    Besides, if you read enough of the Spectator, it is pretty easy to tell the two apart just from their styles. Steele was a fine enough newspaperman, but Addison was the greatest prose stylist of the eighteenth century. And this one definitely reads like a Steele.

  10. Jonathon Owen said,

    August 24, 2015 @ 10:20 pm


    Ah, forgive me. Obviously it's the Wessex dialect, because that's what became standard under Alfred the Great.

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