Grammar Tips: That vs. Which

27 Mar

When should you use ‘that’ in a sentence? When should you use ‘which’ in a sentence? Can you swap them in and out with no worry? These are just some of the questions that arise when structuring sentences and choosing the correct word. Many people struggle with deciding when to use ‘that’ and when to use ‘which’ and a lot of this has to do with our understanding of conversational English. That said, there are a few things that you can keep in mind to help guide you to the correct word choice.

First, there is a rule that you can follow for some general guidance:

  • Which is used to introduce a non-restrictive (or parenthetical) clause
  • That is used to introduce a restrictive clause

Well, what does that mean? Basically, a restrictive clause is something that is essential or that provides essential information within the sentence, and a non-restrictive clause is something that can be left out of the sentence without changing the meaning of the sentence (hence why it is also considered a parenthetical clause; parenthetical asides can be removed from the sentence without altering the meaning of the sentence). For example:

  • Cars that do not have fuel will not run.
  • Cars, which may experience many issues, need fuel to run.

With the first example, the clause beginning with that (“that do not have fuel”) provides essential information that is necessary for our understanding of the sentence. If we remove this clause, we would have a complete sentence (“Cars will not run”), but we do not know which cars will not run (those without fuel).

With the second example, the clause beginning with which (“which may experience many issues”) can be removed from the sentence without greatly altering the meaning of the sentence (“Cars need fuel to run”). The non-restrive clause in this sentence only provides us with extra information about the cars; this information is not necessary for our understanding of the main idea.

Using that and which properly in our writing can bring clarity for our readers. Changing that to which (or which to that) can alter the meaning of our sentence and this can be confusing for our readers.

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3 Responses to “Grammar Tips: That vs. Which”

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  1. Word Crimes! | The Christ College Writing Center - August 27, 2014

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  3. Grammar Tips: Winter Review! | The Christ College Writing Center - December 9, 2015

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