Thursday, November 1, 2012


 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.
Twitter: @BrianKlems    Sign up for Brian's free weekly eNewsletter: WD Newsletter


Barbara Edwards said...

Nice clarification, Thanks

Ginger Simpson said...

Thanks for the clarification. One more thing I'd learned very quickly is (that) there are many instances where you don't need to use "that." One of my very first submissions was judged on the fact (that) I used too many instances of "that." If you can read the sentence and it makes sense, leave "that" out.

Example: She hoped THAT he wouldn't notice the difference in their heights.
The day THAT she went to the doctor was cloudy and cold.
I hope my examples make sense. *smile*

Lorrie said...

Yes, I remember about leaving the 'that' out if the sentence makes sense without it. Your examples do make a lot of sense. I'll have to be more aware now of how I use those words. Thanks Ginger.

Larion aka Larriane Wills said...

very clear. all i have to do now is remember it.

Rita Karnopp said...

Sometimes these things drive me nuts! :) Rita

Rita Karnopp said...

Great example of that ... Ginger... giggle. Rita

Rita Karnopp said...

One of my first books had so many 'that' s in it ... I had to find and change them... either remove them or reword my sentence. That was the first realization ... too much of 'that' can be a killer in a novel. giggle .. Thanks for the comment. Rita

Rita Karnopp said...

I know what you mean, Larion. :) Rita

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