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Which vs. That

Categories: Brian Klems' The Writer's Dig Tags: Brian Klems, online editor blog.

That vs. WhichQ: 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.)

OK, so I’ve never been on the cover of Writer’s Digest, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s necessary for you to understand the context of your clauses, a key covered in most grammar books. If the information is essential, use that. If it’s just additional information that’s useful but unnecessary, use which.

And if you’d like to see me on the cover, contact WD editor Jessica Strawser at writersdigest@fwmedia.com. There are only so many times I can beg her to do it. (Insert smiley face here.)

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14 Responses to Which vs. That

  1. Ardent Muse says:

    Can you do an article on when to use “lie” and “lay” ?
    EX>. “he lay there unconcious” or “he lie there unconcious” …. ???

  2. Docloren says:

    I have a simple sentence for this problem. “If you have to ask which one, use that.” :-)

  3. Laura says:

    Brian,

    SJ_Mitchell wrote, “…The examples which you provide…”
    I would have written that sentence as “The examples you provide…”, leaving out both that and which.

    Am I wrong?

    Laura

  4. JohnA says:

    The commas make all the difference, as the dictionary definition of the correct use of which, as opposed to that, is that it is used to introduce a clause giving ADDITIONAL information. That is, the clause between the commas.

    With regard to whether queerbec’s example should read ‘the man that’, or ‘whom, they were talking about'; if one were being overly pedantic, and formal, it should, in fact, read: the man about whom they were talking.

  5. Aikta Srivastava says:

    Really nice and brief explanation. Thanks!

  6. Sorry to be pedantic, but the difference in meaning in your examples is being created only by the presence of the commas. Remove those commas, and ‘which’ and ‘that’ are interchangeable.
    However, if commas are indeed used (in both sentence pairs), you do need ‘which’. Using ‘that’ would be incorrect. E.g. ‘Our office, that has two lunchrooms, is in Cincinnati.’
    @queerbec, you’d need to write ‘the man whom they were talking about’ to adhere to grammar rules. Is ‘that’ truly incorrect here?

    • Re: “the man that they were talking about” – ‘that’ may not be incorrect but it’s entirely unnecessary. “The man they were talking about.” There’s really no need in this sentence to add “that” or “whom” or “which” or need to distinguish between any of them grammatically. Just leave it out. I would side with “who/whom” when discussing a person – such as “the people who spoke up” – but in this case it’s just a baggage word.

  7. C’mon, Brian, the examples used in this article back up my guideline for using commas and have little or nothing to do with “that” and “which”. When you have useful but unnecessary information, use commas before and after the clause; when the information is necessary to understand the context of the clauses, do not use commas.

    As for “that” and “which”, the grammar gurus offer so many shortcuts that the actual meanings have been obliterated. Both these words are pronouns (of one kind or another, depending on who’s leading). I’ve even see the simple explanation that says “‘which’ refers to animals and inanimate things” and “‘that’ refers to animals and things, and sometimes to persons”. Where is the sense in that?

    I am always in awe of people who claim to know the “right answers”. I am even more in awe of those who pretend to know the “right answers to grammar questions”. My response to grammar questions usually begins: “Here is the answer I prefer.” What follows is my choice among the many gurus who pretend.

  8. queerbec says:

    Next Brian please do an explanation for “that” and “who.” I cringe when I see references to “the man that they were talking about” or “the people that spoke up” But Bill Gates seems to have made it legal to use “that” in such contexts, although I recall having it drilled into me that you use “who” when referring to people and “that” when referring to inanimate objects. But I guess that now has changed, but it still sounds awkward.

  9. This article, which contained many examples, was very informative. In fact, I’d say the examples that were provided were essential for understanding.

    But what about ‘that which’? That which does not kill us makes us stronger. It’s a necessary part of the sentence, in which case should it read “That that does not kill us…”?

  10. karin says:

    I concur with Bob. My training in English and Journalism, my decades as a writer/editor and my experienced ear make me cringe at the use of “that” in all of the examples. Additionally, the sentence, “The issue of Writer’s Digest that has Brian A. Klems picture on the cover is my favorite” would read much better as “The issue of Writer’s Digest with the cover picture of Brian A. Klems is my favorite.” This would tighten the sentence and avoid the use of a possessive, as well as eliminating “that” altogether.
    Nothing personal . . . .just a observation from an old-timer who went to school when grammar and spelling were still in the curriculum.
    kms

    • Thanks for your comment! It’s certainly possible to rewrite and shorten these example sentences, but the point of this exercise is to explain the differences in “which” and “that” for those who want to know the usage rule (and choose to use it).

      Hope that clears things up.

      Thanks again for the note and for reading,
      Brian
      Online Editor

  11. brillpro says:

    Actually at United Press International (UPI) where I worked for years, we were taught there was always a better word to use than “that.” We were specifically never allowed to use it although many did. The rule was never use “that” and find a better word for it.
    Thanx
    Bob

  12. SJ_Mitchell says:

    Great way to explain it. The examples which you provide in this article are…*ahem*…all that!

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