I’ve been putting off a that vs. which article for months. In fact, I’m scared to publish it because I have a few subscribers who are English teachers.
The time, however, has come.
What’s the difference between that and which, and how do you figure out which one to use?
The Good News
The good news about the that vs. which conundrum is that we’re much more loose with the differences nowadays. Nevertheless, it’s important to know the rules, because there are situations where using the incorrect one (officially, they’re called relative pronouns in this context) can change the meaning of a sentence.
More good news from Fowler
Here’s a wonderful quote from my friend H. W. Fowler that should lessen everyone’s anxiety (including mine) when it comes to the that vs. which issue:
The relations between that…and which have come to us from our forefathers as an odd jumble, and plainly show that the language has not been neatly constructed by a master builder who could create each part to do the exact work required of it, neither overlapped nor overlapping; far from that, its parts have had to grow as they could.
In other words, don’t obsess. Learn the rules, try to use them, and then let go.
How I learned the rules
The car that is in the garage has a flat tire.
The car which is in the garage has a flat tire.
In a nutshell, you use that or which depending on what you are emphasizing and what information the sentence is trying to get across.
♦ In the first sentence, there is more than one car. The word that defines which car you are talking about. It is called a defining restrictive pronoun because it defines which item out of many is being discussed; the definition is restricted to one particular item.
♦ In the second sentence, there is only one car. The word which introduces a clause that gives you some extra but possibly non-essential information. The more important issue is that the car has a flat tire.
Which is called a non-defining restrictive pronoun because it doesn’t need to define which item is being referred to; we already know which one, and the item is thus already restricted.
Now let’s unpack the relative pronoun mystique.
the That clause…
- is generally used with regard to more than one item or entity.
- is essential to the rest of the sentence because it is giving indispensable information.
- does not use commas – this is a great way to figure out whether to use that or which.
- emphasizes and identifies the item itself. The information in the clause is restricted to that item only.
- can be written without the word that and still make a comprehensible sentence.
Examples of that in a sentence
The car that is in the garage has a flat tire. I have three cars. One is in the driveway, one is parked at the curb, and one is in the garage. I am telling you which car has the flat tire.
If I said instead, “The car has a flat tire,” that would be unhelpful because you wouldn’t know to which car I am referring. Thus, I need the that clause.
The dog that barked at me was on a leash. There were several dogs, but only one of them barked at me. And thankfully, it was on a leash. The information I have given you in the that clause enables you to narrow down which dog I’m talking about.
The stepladder that was taken yesterday has been returned. This one is a little more tricky. The sentence would still be correct even if there was only one stepladder, because without the that clause we wouldn’t have known that the stepladder was taken in the first place and therefore the sentence would be useless.
In other words, if I had said, “The stepladder has been returned,” and you had no idea that it had even disappeared, my declaration would be irrelevant. Thus, the that clause is essential to this sentence.
Taking that out of the sentence
The following sentences are all valid, as the word that is implied. I have underlined the rest of the clause.
- The car parked in the garage has a flat tire.
- The dog barking at me was on a leash.
- The stepladder taken yesterday has been returned.
the Which clause…
- is generally used with regard to only one item or entity.
- adds non-essential information pertaining to the item being discussed.
- begs the use of commas on either side of it – this is a great way to figure out whether to use that or which.
- emphasizes and identifies an aspect of the item, not the item itself.
- must retain the word which; otherwise, it can be construed as a defining restrictive, i.e., that, clause.
Examples of which in a sentence
The car, which is in the garage, has a flat tire. We have one car, but I don’t know where you parked it last night. Here is some helpful information about the geographical aspect of the car, although the essential information you are trying to impart is that is has a flat tire.
The dog, which barked at me, was on a leash. We already know which dog is being discussed; the important piece of information in this sentence is that it was on a leash. It’s not really that important that it barked at me, but I want you to feel sorry for me and give me more attention. I’m relating a behavioral aspect of the dog, which makes absolutely no difference with regard to whether it was on a leash or not.
Think of “which barked at me” as TMI.
The stepladder, which was taken yesterday, has been returned.
For all you busybodies, here’s an unimportant but gossip-worthy bit of news: the stepladder was taken yesterday. However, if I were to take the moral high ground and delete the which clause, you would still be getting all the information you need.
Sometimes you can go both ways
Although most people mix and match that and which, lazily assuming the reader will understand the point of the sentence, there are situations where the difference can change its meaning – sometimes subtly and sometimes more dramatically. Here is an example:
I have a contract that protects both of us. You have a few contracts. This specific one protects both you and your client.
I have a contract, which protects both of us. This sentence tells us that you have only one standard contract.
The which clause can be seen as incidental. In fact, when trying to decide between that and which, try to add “by the way.” If it works, use which; if not, use that. (“I have a contract, which by the way protects both of us.”)
3 cute that vs. which tricks from Fowler
Here are three more that vs. which hacks to help you decide which relative pronoun to use.
That must be the first word in the clause, while which can be preceded by a preposition
If you can plug a preposition into your sentence, even temporarily, you’ll need which.
- The car
aboutthat is in the garage has a flat tire. No, Ma’am.
- The car about which I have been telling you is in the garage. Correct, although very formal.
Both types of clauses can end in a preposition, sort of
According to Fowler, you can write “I’ve had enough of your sarcasm, which I have already spoken to you about.” However, he hastens to point out that the word about in this sentence is really the adverbial particle of a phrasal verb. Fair enough.
On the other hand, you can say: “I’ve had enough of the sarcasm that I have already spoken to you about.”
If a which clause sounds silly or pompous, use a that clause instead
- “The most stubborn stain across which I have ever come was from blood on your shirt.” Give me a break.
- “The most stubborn stain that I have ever come across was from blood on your shirt.” Now that’s English.
I sincerely hope this post was enlightening and helpful. Please let me know in the Comments if there are any other essential writing and/or grammar issues that you’d like me to address in future posts. And, as always,
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