grammar

Words w/ Friends_ 001: That vs. Which

What better way to start off this new series (W/w/F) than with a grammar quandary of my own. For the life of me, I never seem to commit this one to memory (or I constantly second-guess myself), so inevitably I end up pestering Google with the same question over and over again...

Should I use “which” or “that”?

Well, What's The Big Fuss About?

I think this question is particularly challenging because it involves grammatical concepts that aren't as crucial in everyday speech as they are written down. Just talking day-to-day, it's likely you use these two connectors interchangeably. And it works because you've got so many other factors to aid comprehension (i.e. facial expressions, body gestures, tone, etc.)

This is definitely more of a concern with formal, technical writing.

Knowing when to use one over the other can make all the difference when it comes to communication and comprehension. Clarity is invaluable in legal briefs and tech manuals, among other places. 

The "Rule" That's Not Really A Rule

So let's get right to it:

  • Use “that” when the clause is necessary, i.e. the entire meaning of the sentence would be insufficient or unclear without whatever follows “that.”

  • Use “which” when the clause isn’t needed, i.e. the entire meaning of the sentence would be kept intact and perfectly clear without whatever follows “which.”

Let’s examine this (deceptively) simple distinction in practice:

1.    Apples that have bruised skin are sometimes not safe to eat.

2.    Apples, which come in a variety of colors, are sometimes not safe to eat.

You can see how the clausal material in the second sentence is extraneous information; one does not need to know that apples come in lots of colors to know they are sometimes not safe to eat.

However, the first sentence contains a restrictive phrase, or one that focuses the reader’s attention on something. Knowing that apples with bruised skin may not be safe to eat is necessary information to understanding the entire sentence.

As it turns out, a lot of times the distinction between "that" and "which" lies in the direction of the reader's attention. I view it less as a rule and more so as a tool for more clear communication.

When asking yourself, “That vs. which?”, consider the sentence without the clause it’s connecting. If the sentence is unclear without the clause, then use “that.” If the sentence operates just fine without the clause, then use “which.”

Review Your Skills

Now for a quick quiz! (Everyone’s favorite, I know.)

1.    Melissa decided to meet Tami at the bodega (that/which) had seven cats keeping watch out front.

2.    The teacher was impressed and gave a high grade to Kat’s paper (that/which) was admittedly very well-written.

3.    The home (that/which) is next to a lake recently got renovated for flood safety.

Answer key is in the first comment!

Did you get all three correct? Let me know if this cleared up a super common grammar question for you. (I know it certainly helped me commit this one to memory finally!)