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What Is the Difference Between That and Which?

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  • Written By: Michael Pollick
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  • Last Modified Date: 22 March 2014
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There is a subtle but important difference between the use of that and which in a sentence, and it has to do primarily with relevance. Grammarians often use the terms "restrictive" and "non-restrictive" when it comes to relative clauses. A relative clause provides additional information about the noun it describes, but it might be considered relevant or irrelevant to the overall point of the sentence. In other words, a restrictive relative clause, which often begins with that, is usually considered essential or restrictive. Relative clauses beginning with which might contain non-essential information and would be considered non-restrictive.

What might be more helpful in a person's daily quest for proper word usage are real examples containing that or which in their correct settings. What people need to keep in mind is the idea of restrictive or non-restrictive clauses, which translates to "necessary" or "helpful but non-essential."

In a sentence such as "The company that invented the microchip we use invited us to a demonstration," the word "that" is relative to "company." There are thousands of companies in the world, but it is important to know the "company that invented the microchip" is specifically the one holding the demonstration. In this sense, the relative clause beginning with that would be considered restrictive, since it is an essential piece of information needed to identify the company. A person would not write "The company which invented the microchip invited us to a demonstration." in formal writing.

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Which could be used in a similar sentence constructed this way: "Widgets Incorporated, which invented the microchip we use, has officially declared bankruptcy." In this sentence, the relative clause "which invented the microchip we use" is separated by commas. The information about the microchip is useful, but not essential to the main idea of the sentence. It could be removed and the sentence would still make sense. If the relative clause can be removed without changing the sentence's meaning, it would be considered non-restrictive. Readers can identify the specific subject, in this case Widgets Incorporated, so "which" would be the correct pronoun to use. "Which" is almost always used to set off a non-restrictive relative clause, which can be remembered as a parenthetical phrase.

A sentence such as "Widgets Incorporated, that invented the microchip, has declared bankruptcy." would be incorrect. "That" does not usually set off a non-restrictive clause, since it is more closely related to the noun it modifies. The word "that" is rarely used in reference to people, as well. "The man that lost his hat yesterday found it this morning," would be incorrect. "The storage building that once stood on the corner has collapsed," would be correct, since "that" modifies an inanimate thing and the relative clause "that once stood on the corner" is restrictive and essential.

One might be tempted to use "which" in place of "that" in a similar sentence, such as "The building which used to be on the corner has been torn down.", but it would be incorrect. The information about the building's location is essential, so it would need a restrictive clause. A correct sentence using "which" would read like this: "The Olsen building, which stood on the corner of 12th and Vine Streets, has been torn down." The sentence could still be understood without the non-restrictive clause.

In short, whenever the information is essential to identifying the subject, the proper pronoun to use is that. If the information is not essential, or can be set apart with commas, then the pronoun which is more likely to be correct. As is the case with English grammar rules, however, there are going to be some exceptions to this rule. When in doubt, writers can try removing the relative clause and asking themselves if the sentence sounds complete and informative. Some grammar experts suggest silently adding the words "by the way" after which to determine if the information is relevant or irrelevant. If "by the way" seems to fit, then the clause is non-restrictive and should be set off with commas.

If the meaning of the sentence would be lost without the information, then it is most likely restrictive and that would be the proper pronoun to use.

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anon161485
Post 9

Please understand that American usage has deviated from English (UK) language.

"That" is restrictive and "which" is non-restrictive and is always set off with commas. "That" does not require commas. See the following examples:

A parcel that will arrive next week will be collected by my colleague. (This is restricted to a parcel that will arrive next week and not other parcels.)

A parcel, which will arrive next week, will be collected by my colleague. (This is non-restrictive because we are referring to a parcel, which, incidentally, will arrive next week.) --Lynalan

anon94180
Post 7

It is not that 'which' is used with a restrictive clause. The usage of a comma does all the trick. Blame it on the comma.

boy
Post 5

It is exactly repeated usage by good writers that does make something right. How else do we know what is right, other than usage?

All of my examples show "which" being used in restrictive clauses. We know that they're restrictive clause because they are not proceeded by a comma.

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage discusses "that/which" on pages 894-895, and concludes "You can choose either that or which to introduce a restrictive clause".

anon87614
Post 4

This is not true. Virginia McDavid's 1977 study in "American Speech" showed that about 75 percent of the instances of "which" in edited prose were used to introduce restrictive clauses.

Here are just a few examples of good writers using restrictive "which".

Just because people have repeatedly used it incorrectly, doesn't make them right. I present to you the word "momentarily." Dictionaries now include both "in a moment" and "for a moment" as correct definitions for momentarily, due to an almost global misuse of the word.

Also, you can take out your Alice in Wonderland reference, because it meets the above stated rules, as "that" is rarely used in reference to people. Same goes for the Dickens reference.

The Bronte reference can go too, as it also meets the rules. We would have gotten the same idea if the "which" statement were removed. "and Mrs. Heathcliff leaning over the fire, diverting herself with burning a bundle of matches ... as she restored the tea-canister to its place." We don't require information as to the original location of the matches, in order to understand her activity.

boy
Post 1

>"Which" is almost always used to set off a non-restrictive relative clause

This is not true. Virginia McDavid's 1977 study in "American Speech" showed that about 75% of the instances of "which" in edited prose were used to introduce restrictive clauses.

>One might be tempted to use "which" in place of "that" in a similar sentence, such as "The building which used to be on the corner has been torn down.", but it would be incorrect.

This is not helpful advice. The fact is that in standard written English, it's not "which" that marks a nonrestrictive clause, it's the comma. If there is no comma, the clause is restrictive whether it is headed by "which" or "that". Here are just a few examples of good writers using restrictive "which".

It was a concern which brought just employment enough. (Jane Austen, Emma, chapter 2)

However, she soon made out that she was in the pool of tears which she had wept when she was nine feet high. (Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, chapter 2)

He lived in chambers which had once belonged to his deceased partner. (Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, Stave 1)

Buda-Pesth seems a wonderful place, from the glimpse which I got of it from the train and the little I could walk through the streets. (Bram Stoker, Dracula, chapter 1)

I think I can see a little into the springs and motives which being cunningly presented to me under various disguises (Herman Melville, Moby Dick, chapter 1)

and Mrs. Heathcliff leaning over the fire, diverting herself with burning a bundle of matches which had fallen from the chimney-piece as she restored the tea-canister to its place (Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights, chapter 2)

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