Tuesday, April 23, 2013

That or Which

(originally posted 2/22/13)

Yup, I'm still knee deep in revisions ... okay ... I'm actually up to my ears in revisions. How's that for a couple of cliches? haha.

But this post is NOT about cliches. It is about grammar.

When do you use the word THAT, and when do you use the word WHICH? Does it matter? While revising, I recalled that a middle-school teacher told us to write a paper that did NOT include the word THAT. (Yes, I intentionally used that word that many times in that sentence.) Because often times, we throw THAT into a sentence where it is not needed, simply because we use the word so much in everyday dialogue.

So I had the bright idea to highlight all of the THATs in my manuscript. I wanted to eliminate all of the unnecessary ones, but as I was revising, I started to wonder if some of those THATs should actually be replaced with the word WHICH.



Here's what I found:

The simplest explanation came from: OxfordDictionaries.com

I bought a new dress, which I will be wearing to Jo's party. [non-restrictive]
I was wearing the dress that I bought to wear to Jo's party. [restrictive]

The best explanation came from: Grammar Girl

Restrictive Clause--That

A restrictive clause is just part of a sentence that you can't get rid of because it specifically restricts some other part of the sentence. Here's an example:

  • Gems that sparkle often elicit forgiveness.

The words that sparkle restrict the kind of gems you're talking about. Without them, the meaning of the sentence would change. Without them, you'd be saying that all gems elicit forgiveness, not just the gems that sparkle. (And note that you don't need commas around the words that sparkle.)

Nonrestrictive Clause--Which

A nonrestrictive clause is something that can be left off without changing the meaning of the sentence. You can think of a nonrestrictive clause as simply additional information. Here's an example:

  • Diamonds, which are expensive, often elicit forgiveness.

And the best tip came from: Writing Forward

The Easy Way to Remember the Difference Between That and Which

I Needed That
If you need the clause to maintain a sentence’s meaning, then use that. A quick trick for remembering this grammar rule is the phrase “I needed that.”
Because which is also an interrogative pronoun used to mark questions, it is questionable. You can take it or leave it. It’s not necessary. Think of the word which with a question mark (which?) to remind yourself that if the clause’s presence is questionable and can be removed, then you should use the word which to introduce the clause.


Of course, each website referenced above contains much more detail than what I've shared here. Check them and learn more than you ever wanted about these two words! Then go back to your manuscript and highlight them all and double check your usage!

Are there any grammar issues you're struggling with?


  1. I've just finished a huge proofreading job which was littered with "that's" and "which's". (I used 'which' in that sentence - is it correct?!
    Duncan In Kuantan

    1. Duncan - I forgot to put into the post that you are supposed to use a comma before the word WHICH. (See examples in post.) So, other than the missing comma in your sentence, yes, you used it correctly ... I think!!! But if WHICH is used in a nonrestrictive clause that means you should be able to remove the clause and not change the meaning of the sentence. *sigh*

  2. Very informative. Thanks. I need all the help I can get. :-)

  3. I had a problem with my characters smiling too much. I never even considered how often I use the word that. I'm heading over to run a check on my document...I have a bad feeling about this.

  4. I have trouble with 'lay,' 'lie,' 'lain,' 'laid,' 'lied,' and 'lying.'
    The English language sucks. You could also say it 'blows.'
    See what I mean?

  5. Nice post on that and which - they confuse me a bit too. I'm like Al, I struggle with lay and lie, even though I've looked it up and studied it bunches of times.

  6. Hi. Thanks for the lesson. Lay and lie still confuses me, too. I keep pulling out the grammar books. Saw you on the a-z list. Nice site :)

  7. Oh I need to print this out and stick it on the wall. I never remember this, even though Word tried to educate me - its suggestion never seems right.

  8. My mom always told me that if a comma comes before it, then you should use which.

  9. This is a great theme! I taught grammar at the college level for many years. My students weren't always crazy about it, but I just loved it. :)

  10. Though these things do help explain it a little more, I'm still confused :( I'm also really bad with Further/Farther. But most other things I'm okay with ....I think

  11. Great great great. Thanks for the clarification. :)

  12. Thank you! I scanned down to posts I had missed. All addressed questions niggling in my brain.

  13. I am very self-conscious while I write this. I think, that as we get further and further away from college, and assigned writing, we get sloppy with no one to correct our blogs and remind us of the rules. I would like to contact you and have you look at some of my writing when the A-Z Challenge is over. I expect to pay you a consulting fee. Thank you very much. My goal is to improve my writing.

  14. I'm definitely guilty of using that way too often. I agree with loverofwords the longer I've been away from formal school the more relaxed I have been in my writing standards.

  15. As soon as I saw the title for this post, I knew it was going to be one I needed to read. And it was. Great sources and explanations!