Which vs. that

August 7, 2012

Writer’s Digest has posted an exceptionally good explanation of word usage as it pertains to “which” and “that.” It’s the clearest, most consise explanation I have ever heard, so I have reposted it below.

Q: I’ve been writing for a long time and always assumed which and that were interchangeable, but I’ve recently been told that isn’t the case. How do I make sure I’m using the right word? —Anonymous

The battle over whether to use which or that is one many people struggle to get right. It’s a popular grammar question and most folks want a quick rule of thumb so they can get it right.

Here it is:

If the sentence doesn’t need the clause that the word in question is connecting, use which. If it does, use that. (Pretty easy to remember, isn’t it?) Let me explain with a couple of examples.

Our office, which has two lunchrooms, is located in Cincinnati.
Our office that has two lunchrooms is located in Cincinnati.

These sentences are not the same. The first sentence tells us that you have just one office, and it’s located in Cincinnati. The clause which has two lunchrooms gives us additional information, but it doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence. Remove the clause and the location of our one office would still be clear: Our office is located in Cincinnati.

The second sentence suggests that we have multiple offices, but the office with two lunchrooms is located in Cincinnati. The phrase that has two lunchrooms is known as a restrictive clause because another part of the sentence (our office) depends on it. You can’t remove that clause without changing the meaning of the sentence.

Let’s look at another example:

The time machine, which looked like a telephone booth, concerned Bill and Ted.
The time machine that looked like a telephone booth concerned Bill and Ted.

In the first sentence (thanks to the use of which), the time machine concerned Bill and Ted. It also happened to look like a telephone booth. In the second sentence (which uses the restrictive clause), Bill and Ted are concerned with the time machine that looks like a telephone booth. They aren’t concerned with the one that looks like a garden shed or the one that looks like a DeLorean (Marty McFly may have reservations about that one).

Now that you’ve learned the rule, let’s put it to a test:

1. The iPad (which/that) connects to the iCloud was created by Apple.
2. The issue of Writer’s Digest (which/that) has Brian A. Klems’ picture on the cover is my favorite.

The correct answers are:

1. The iPad, which connects to the iCloud, was created by Apple. (All iPads connect to the iCloud, so it’s unnecessary information.)

2. The issue of Writer’s Digest that has Brian A. Klems picture on the cover is my favorite. (Your favorite issue of Writer’s Digest isn’t just any issue, it’s the one with me on the cover.)


One Response to “Which vs. that”

  1. Carissa Says:

    My students struggle with this sometimes. I finally wrote up a blog they can consult whenever ( http://eslcarissa.blogspot.com/2012/10/which-vs-that.html )

    My favorite examples to give are:
    News, which is run by rich people, is biased.
    News that is run by rich people is biased.

    When we don’t use commas (only with that) it means the information is essential. That there is still hope! Not all newspapers are run by rich people.

    Drugs, which make you stupid, should be illegal. (All drugs make you stupid and should be illegal)
    Drugs that make you stupid should be illegal. (Only drugs that make you stupid should be illegal)

    They like me making fun of news and any time I can mention drugs they tend to listen a little more 🙂

    There’s also the fact that can be used for people and which is NEVER used for people (they usually grasp that pretty fast, but sometimes they mess up)


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