EDITING 101: 34 – When to use “which” or “that”?

When to use “which” or “that”?

This is a grammar conundrum which is specific to the US, and that confused me for quite some time myself. If you’re in the UK or elsewhere that uses UK style, you probably don’t even need to read this post, as it will simply confuse you. Just keep doing what you’re doing and you’ll be fine.

For all you United States writers, heads up and pay attention!

Many people feel “which” and “that” are interchangeable. I used to think so, too, until I did some research and discovered there is indeed a difference. The usage difference stems from whether or not the information following which/that is necessary to the sentence (nonrestrictive) or unnecessary (restrictive). (I don’t like the terms nonrestrictive and restrictive, because to me they are backwards and I get them mixed up. So I’ll stick to necessary or unnecessary, which are more understandable.) If the clause following which/that is unnecessary to the sentence structure, then you surround it with commas and use “which.” If it’s necessary to the sentence, you don’t offset it with commas and you use “that.”

For example:

  • This difficult subject is one that is taught in our school.

This is correct, because the phrase or clause “that is taught in our school” is necessary to the sentence. It could not be removed from the sentence without it rendering the sentence grammatically incorrect. It doesn’t need to be set off with commas, and the use of “that” is appropriate.

If you wanted to use “which,” you’d have to rework it this way:

  • This subject, which is one taught in our school, is difficult.

In this example, the phrase “which is taught in our school” is unnecessary to the sentence structure. Therefore, it is surrounded by commas and you use the word “which.” You could remove the clause (not Claus!) and be left with “This subject is difficult,” which is grammatically correct and a full, complete sentence in itself.

Don’t confuse information that is necessary to your story with information that is necessary to the sentence structure! 🙂

For the rule we’ve just discussed, what do you think of these sentences?

  1. The dog that was black barked incessantly all day.

  2. I wanted to climb the tree which is over there.

  3. My computer, that used to be Robert’s, is now broken.

  4. My bathroom which was recently redone is now blue.

Next week we’ll discuss ‘Using the five senses’

To see the index and catch up with missed episodes of this series – CLICK HERE

NOTE:

This series is not meant to be (nor will it be) simple static information.

I’ll be here for each post to answer questions, offer suggestions as necessary, and interact with you.

If there’s something you specifically want (or need!) to see addressed in terms of self-editing, please let me know in the comments under this, or any of the articles of the series.

Susan

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53 thoughts on “EDITING 101: 34 – When to use “which” or “that”?

  1. Oh Susan, I’m so proud to report that I learned this one years ago. I’ve no recollection of when, how, or why; but I do remember being very excited. Yes, I admit getting excited about grammar 🙂 Here’s my take on the above sentences (feel free to grade me 🙂 ): 1. The dog, which was black, barked incessantly all day / The black dog barked incessantly all day. 2. I wanted to climb the tree, which is over there / I wanted to climb that tree over there. 3. My computer, which used to be Robert’s, is now broken. 4. My bathroom, which recently was redone, is now blue. Have I told you lately how much I appreciate your posts? ♥

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