Jen’s English Tips – That Versus Which
That Versus Which
If you’re confused about that versus which, don’t feel bad. It’s one of the topics people ask me about.
Here’s the deal: some people will argue that the rules are more complex and flexible than this, but I like to make things as simple as possible, so I say that you use that before a restrictive clause and which before everything else.
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.
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.
Diamonds are always expensive, so leaving out the words which are expensive doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence. Also note that the phrase is surrounded by commas. Nonrestrictive clauses are usually surrounded by, or preceded by, commas. Here’s another example:
There was an earthquake in China, which is bad news.
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:
- The iPad (which/that) connects to the iCloud was created by Apple.
2. The issue of Writer’s Digest (which/that) has Ray’s picture on the cover is my favorite.
The correct answers are:
- The iPad, which connects to the iCloud, was created by Apple.
(All iPads connect to the iCloud, so it’s unnecessary information.)
- The issue of Writer’s Digest that has Ray’s 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.
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