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That vs. Which on the GMAT

Learn the important distinction between “that” vs. “which” on GMAT Sentence Correction.

 

That vs. which? Restrictive vs. Non-restrictive

A restrictive modifier limits the conceivable scope of a general noun to a relevant subset.  For example, consider the difference in the following two sentences:

1) I avoid dogs that appear too excited.

2) I avoid dogs, which appear too excited.

The first sentence conveys that I have a problem some particular category of dogs, those dogs that happen to seem too excited.  Conceivably, even someone generally fond of dogs might say this about some narrow subset of dogs.  The second sentence is a much more scathing statement: it suggests that I avoid all dogs, and the modifier acts as a judgment, almost a blanket condemnation, that I make about absolutely all dogs.  The first, containing the word “that”, is a restrictive clause, which narrows the scope from all dogs to a more specific subset.  The second, containing the word “which”, is a non-restrictive clause, which simply adds a judgment to the whole category of dogs.  In a choice between “that” and “which”, “that” must be used for the restrictive clause, and “which” for the non-restrictive clause.  (BTW, lest any reader fret, outside of the foregoing hypothetical example, I really love all dogs!)

 

How do I pick?

How can you tell whether a clause should be restrictive or not?  Well, one easy trick is to state the sentence without the clause.  A restrictive clause provides vital information, so when it is dropped, the meaning of the sentence changes.  A non-restrictive clause may provide helpful or interesting information, but when it is dropped, there is absolutely no ambiguity about the identity of the noun, and the sentence retains the same meaning.  In the following sentences, see if you can tell whether the underlined clause should be restrictive or non-restrictive, and thus, whether the word “that” or “which” should be used.

1) Mortimer can’t drive cars (that/which) have a standard transmission.

2) My favorite bridge is the Brooklyn Bridge (that/which) spans the East River in New York City.

3) Dr. Martin Luther King openly questioned laws (that/which) instituted injustice.

In sentence #1, it is certainly not true that all cars have a standard transmission!  The vast majority of modern cars have automatic transmission, which means the only logical choice is the restrictive clause. Dropping the clause seems to suggest that Mortimer can’t drive at all, which has a different meaning than a statement about his ability to drive a car with standard transmission.  In #4, there is only one Brooklyn Bridge in the whole world, so dropping the clause leaves absolutely no doubt about its identity: we need the non-restrictive clause.  In #3, Dr. King was not a wild anarchist who questioned absolutely all laws; quite to the contrary, he was highly principled individual who raised profound moral questions about a particular subset of laws, those which embodied some form of injustice.  Therefore, the restrictive clause is needed.  The corrected sentences are:

1) Mortimer can’t drive cars that have a standard transmission.

2) My favorite bridge is the Brooklyn Bridge, which spans the East River in New York City

3) Dr. Martin Luther King openly questioned laws that instituted injustice.

 

What about commas?

You may have noticed another subtle difference.   A non-restrictive clause needs to be set off from the noun it modifies by commas.  Commas should not set off a restrictive clause from the noun it modifies.  When there’s a “that”/”which” distinction, that can tells whether the clause is restrictive or not.  When the same relative pronoun is used in both cases, sometimes our only clue is the punctuation.  Consider these two sentences.

1) Bartholomew doesn’t like people who talk too much.

2) Bartholomew doesn’t like people, who talk too much.

Just one comma, but a world of difference!  The first, without commas, is a restrictive clause which narrows the topic down from all human beings to some subset, just those folks who (according to Bartholomew) talk too much.  We would need to know a little more about our hypothetical friend Bartholomew to know how reasonably his judgment is, but at least in some interpretations, we easily could imagine this is a sentiment that many people might hold.  In the second sentence, the clause is separate by a comma, which tells is it is non-restrictive: in that sentence, our friend Bartholomew seems to have some major issues: he doesn’t like people in general, the whole human race at large, and the modifier implies that he doesn’t like people because all people, the whole lot of them, talk too much, at least according to him.  It would be exceeding hard to imagine such a person has a sane and happy life!  This exemplifies the profound difference commas can make in the meaning of a sentence.

If you understand this distinction between restrictive vs. non-restrictive clauses, you will master one of the most confusing areas of GMAT Sentence Correction — and you will get “that” vs. “which” right every time!

See Also:

Vital Noun Modifiers

About the Author

Mike McGarry is a Content Developer for Magoosh with over 20 years of teaching experience and a BS in Physics and an MA in Religion, both from Harvard. He enjoys hitting foosballs into orbit, and despite having no obvious cranial deficiency, he insists on rooting for the NY Mets. Follow him on Google+!

36 Responses to That vs. Which on the GMAT

  1. Brijesh May 28, 2014 at 9:43 am #

    Does ‘That’ also follow Jump rule while referring to a noun already having a vital modifier in place?
    son of a person who is working at abc?

    Clear me ,please.

    • Mike
      Mike May 28, 2014 at 10:15 am #

      Dear Brijesh,
      Yes, my friend, what you call the “jump rule” is the rule about Vital Noun Modifiers, discussed here:
      http://magoosh.com/gmat/2012/gmat-grammar-vital-noun-modifiers/
      Yes, if the vital modifier is relatively short, then it can separate a “that” clause from it’s intended target. “This is a book about kangaroos that I found in the library.” — in that sentence, it’s very clear I found the book, not the kangaroos, in the library. Having said this, this construction is not very common in the GMAT SC.
      Does this make sense?
      Mike :-)

      • brijesh May 29, 2014 at 2:32 am #

        But confusion remains somewhere in my mind
        Son of king of saud,Abdullah,is keen in sports.
        Now how to distinguish whether Abdullah is for son or for king or it is a state in saud?
        He came to me asking for help.-how to distinguish it is me asking for help ,or he.
        these doubts,if cleared,will help a lot for my essay writing.
        And,much obliged for your support.

        • Mike
          Mike May 29, 2014 at 10:24 am #

          Dear Brijesh,
          My friend, part of what is awkward is that your example sentence omits all definite articles. It would sound more natural to say “THE son of THE king of Saud” — the entire sentence sound very unnatural without the definite articles. Also, the name “Saud” has to be capitalized: leaving it uncapitalized implies a lack of respect for the House of Saud. Furthermore, “keen in sports” sounds stilted and awkward — this is not the way a native speaker would say it; a native speaker might say “interested in sports” or “enthusiastic about sports” or “excited about sports.”
          Finally, to your question. As a general rule, if the subject is “A of B of C.” the assumption is that any modifier that follows this applies to the subject, because the subject always acts as an implicit focus in the sentence. Thus, my default assumption would be that “Abdullah” is the son. If I were writing the sentence myself, I would start with the name, so that that the modifier would touch it:
          Abdullah, the son of the king of Saud, is enthusiastic about sports.
          That’s very clear and it sounds natural.
          If you are not comfortable with use of the definite article, then my friend, you have a lot you need to learn before you can write an impressive essay. First of all, I will recommend again developing a habit of reading — reading English every day is a good way to develop a sense of it. It sounds like it would also be helpful to listen to English radio or TV news, again, to get the sounds into your ears more fully.
          I don’t know whether you are planning to take the TOEFL, but Magoosh has a TOEFL product:
          http://toefl.magoosh.com/
          We also have an English product, to help people improve their English:
          http://english.magoosh.com/?utm_source=magoosh.com&utm_medium=button&utm_campaign=homepage&gclid=CPzmjKHS0b4CFQeVfgodklcAAg
          If you decide not to use these products, I strongly suggest working with a writing coach who can help you improve your writing and who can proofread any essays you write.
          Does all this make sense?
          Mike :-)

  2. sonia April 2, 2014 at 3:38 pm #

    Hello Mike,

    Does “that” never precedes with a comma? and is ‘that’ only used as a restrictive modifier.

    Does “which” always precedes with a comma? and is ‘which’ only used as a non restrictive modifier.

    I read it in a blog, but want to confirm before I start applying this logic in solving SC –

    In a question, can we determine whether the use of “that” is relevant or not by looking at the clause following “that”. So, if the main clause needs the clause after “that” (essential modifier), then only “that” should be used. But, if the clause following “that” can act as an independent sentence, then “that” should not be present as modifier?
    Please do confirm

    • Mike
      Mike April 2, 2014 at 4:25 pm #

      Dear Sonia,
      Grammar is not like mathematics. In math, we have lots of “always” and “never” statements that are perfectly true, but in grammar, in the living language, it’s hard to say “always” or “never” about almost anything.
      As a general rule, the present of a comma indicated “which” and the absence of a comma indicates “that” — that’s a rough, general rule. The “which” might not have a comma if it follows a preposition,
      to the country from which aluminum ore is exported
      and a “that” certain could follow a comma if there were a series of “that”-clauses in parallel:
      We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
      There, all the “that” clauses are appositive phrases modifying “truths.”
      Part of the problem is that the word “that” has many different uses. See this post:
      http://magoosh.com/gmat/2013/gmat-sentence-correction-the-many-uses-of-that/
      Does all this make sense?
      Mike :-)

      • sonia April 2, 2014 at 5:09 pm #

        Makes so much sense Mike. Thank you!!

        But as a general rule (rough rule) – ‘that’ should be used for a restrictive clause and ‘which’ for a non restrictive, correct? And ‘that’ usually will modify the meaning of main clause AND ‘which’ may not.

        • Mike
          Mike April 3, 2014 at 10:01 am #

          Sonia,
          In a “that” vs. “which” split, definitely use “that” for restrictive and “which” for non-restrictive that’s close to a 100% true rule. Both restrictive and non-restrictive are noun modifiers, and so either can modify nouns in the main clause or anywhere else in the sentence. There’s absolutely no difference in the location of the nouns that one or the other can modify.
          You may find the related distinction of vital vs. non-vital modifiers helpful:
          http://magoosh.com/gmat/2012/gmat-grammar-vital-noun-modifiers/
          Mike :-)

      • Tushar April 3, 2014 at 5:09 am #

        great question and answer!

        • Mike
          Mike April 3, 2014 at 10:01 am #

          Dear Tushar,
          Many thanks, my friend. I’m happy you found it helpful.
          Mike :-)

          • sonia April 3, 2014 at 10:24 am #

            Thank you Mike!! A confirmation from an expert is so critical before we start applying logic on some of the vague concepts. This is very helpful! Thanks.

            • Mike
              Mike April 3, 2014 at 10:29 am #

              Sonia,
              You are more than welcome, my friend. I wish you the best of luck in the future.
              Mike :-)

    • Tushar April 3, 2014 at 11:17 am #

      Dear Sonia, just to help, it should be ” Does.. precede” and not “precedes”..
      Anyways nice question.

  3. Tushar March 27, 2014 at 12:37 pm #

    I like posts that lucidly explain the concepts tested in the verbal section, which is more difficult than the rest of the GMAT.
    Does this makes sense? :)

    • Mike
      Mike March 27, 2014 at 1:21 pm #

      Dear Tushar,
      Excellent! Univocally clear!
      Mike :-)

  4. Anmol March 3, 2014 at 9:45 am #

    Hi Mike

    I avoid dogs that appear too excited-In this sentence you have mentioned that “that appear too excited” is a restrictive clause, but i am confused here as i am not able to judge whether its a restrictive clause or a restrictive phrase as “that appear too excited” seems to be missing the subject and clauses must have a subject and a verb.

    • Mike
      Mike March 3, 2014 at 10:37 am #

      Dear Anmol,
      I’m happy to help. This is, indeed, a restrictive *clause*. You see, here, the word “that” acts as a relative pronoun, which means that it (1) introduces a subordinate clause, and (2) is the subject of the clause. Thus, the subject is “that” and the verb is “appear.” See this blog for more information about the word “that”:
      http://magoosh.com/gmat/2013/gmat-sentence-correction-the-many-uses-of-that/
      Does all this make sense?
      Mike :-)

  5. abhijeet September 28, 2013 at 4:25 am #

    Another stupendous post from you mike…i have not seen any posts by any gmat tutor which can explain concepts so lucidly, erasing whatever concept related doubts the reader has in her mind….and thus equipping them with a tool to drill through gmat…

    • Mike
      Mike September 28, 2013 at 1:27 pm #

      Dear Abhijeet,
      Thank you very much for your high praise. I am very glad you found this helpful. Best of luck to you.
      Mike :-)

  6. Voodoo Child August 24, 2012 at 2:37 pm #

    Mike – I am just curious – do you know any official problem that is based on the distinction between restrictive/non-restrictive modifier?

    Thanks

    • Mike
      Mike August 27, 2012 at 9:25 am #

      Some of the problems in OG13 in which this distinction comes into play are SC #12, SC #48, and SC #73.
      Mike :-)

      • Voodoo Child September 12, 2012 at 7:01 pm #

        Thanks Mike. But those questions have some other major problems. I guess I was looking for an official in which ‘restrictive vs. non-restrictive’ modifier was the sole reason difference. Thanks again for your help. Your posts, as usual, are the best.

        • Mike
          Mike September 13, 2012 at 2:03 pm #

          Voodoo: One important thing to understand about official GMAT SC questions — they are ALMOST NEVER about a single grammatical issue, and almost ALWAYS involve two or three different “pivots” at once. Low quality GMAT prep questions will focus on only one grammatical issue at a time: indeed, that’s one hallmark of a low quality SC question.
          Thank you for your kind words.
          Mike :-)

  7. somsubhra Mukherjee May 24, 2012 at 9:08 am #

    Hi

    I gave the GMAT yesterday and got 550. The bratk up is that i got 48 in quant and only 17 in verbal. Though i have tried from kaplan aswell as manhattan. Go through beathegamt site regularly. I am thinking of giving another try in month of august. Please suggest what to do. I am moving through a difficut moment , need your assistance.

    Thank you

    • Mike
      Mike May 24, 2012 at 11:01 am #

      I would say: try Magoosh. We have 200+ lesson videos,including a long series on all the grammar you will need for sentence correction. We teach strategies for each type of verbal question, and each one of our 800+ practice questions has a complete video explanation. You can click the “1-week free trial” link above. I hope that helps.
      Mike :)

  8. Ameya April 25, 2012 at 10:41 am #

    Very good insights. I have my test the day after tomorrow and I think such articles are the best read during this time. Thanks a lot Mike :) Can you suggest me what should I be reading when my test is just a day away?

    Ameya

    • Chris Lele
      Chris April 25, 2012 at 12:09 pm #

      Hi Ameya,

      Mike is out today, and I am answering instead (I see that your test is tmrw!). If you haven’t already, reading through the other posts on the Magoosh blog will be really helpful.

      Reading from source such as the nytimes.com will help prime your brain for the level of language employed in Sentence Corrections. Indeed many of the idioms you encounter test day are floating about any number of articles on the nytimes.com website.

      Hope that helps :).

      • Chris Lele
        Chris April 25, 2012 at 12:10 pm #

        And good luck on your test tmrw :).

        • Ameya April 26, 2012 at 10:42 am #

          Thanks Chris! I am all done and set for tomorrow. :) I will perhaps take a newspaper with me just to warm up and couple of math question as well. Thanks again.

          Ameya

          • Chris Lele
            Chris April 26, 2012 at 3:38 pm #

            Great, but most importantly just relax before the test. Don’t stress your brain out too much with new info. :).

  9. Vinoth@GMAT Kolaveri April 24, 2012 at 10:27 am #

    Can which refer to a clause or only to a noun?

    • Mike
      Mike April 24, 2012 at 4:35 pm #

      In colloquial speech, the relative pronoun “which” is flexible, and indeed can refer to a phrase or clause. (1) “I am big fan of getting up early, which my sister thinks is crazy.” (“which” refers to the participial phrase “getting up early.”) (2) “When Elaine found out, I heard that she went home and exploded in anger at Roger, which is exactly what I was afraid would happen.” (“which” refers to the clause ” that she went home and exploded in anger at Roger”). Does that make sense? Keep in mind, this is relatively informal, and therefore a model for GMAT’s SC standards. On the GMAT, the pronouns “that” and “which” will always have a clear noun referent.
      Mike :)

      • Confuse Mind August 16, 2012 at 11:44 pm #

        Confused with this :(

        Till date, the examples I have read and the text I went through, I found that which refers to the nearest noun and that noun be placed just close to which

        X, which

        Can you please elaborate on this more.

        Another question – can ‘that’ refer to a phrase/clause?

        • Mike
          Mike August 17, 2012 at 4:12 pm #

          I modified the above entry a bit, for the purposes of clarification. In informal speech, yes, “that” and “which” can refer to entire clauses.
          “The stock market plummeted, which worried the President and his advisers.”
          That sentence would be clear in colloquial English, but would not fly on the GMAT SC, which adheres to the standard of a clear noun antecedent for each relative pronoun.
          “The stock market plummeted, a decline that worried the President and his advisers.”
          That sentence is now GMAT SC worthy.
          Does this make sense?
          Mike :-)

          • Confuse Mind August 17, 2012 at 10:27 pm #

            Like :)

            Thanks Mike!

            • Mike
              Mike August 18, 2012 at 8:21 pm #

              You are quite welcome.
              Mike :-)


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