Which or that? That or which? Which witch did that witch wish with? (Good luck with that one!) The decision of when to use which vs. that has plagued mankind for centuries. OK, it was more like a day and a half. But still, most people really do not understand the proper use of these two leaders of clauses. Well, I’m here today to clear all of that up.
Is There a Clause?
Yes, there is a Santa Claus, but that’s not the one we’ll be discussing today.
The one I’m talking about is the grammatical clause. I bring up the subject of clauses because they are essential in understanding whether to use which vs. that in any given sentence.
If you remember, a clause is a group of words that has a subject and a predicate. Every sentence has at least one clause in it. Now, there are two different types of clauses that we need for this lesson.
1. The Essential Clause
The essential clause is also known as the restrictive or defining clause. When it’s used in a sentence, it is an essential part of that sentence. This means that the sentence couldn’t live without the clause. If you were to remove the essential clause, the meaning of the sentence would change dramatically.
The woman who forgot her purse will get a big surprise when she gets home.
Now, look at the sentence above. Sure, you could remove the essential clause marked in bold lettering and still have a sentence.
The woman will get a big surprise when she gets home.
However, without that essential clause, the reader is left wondering why in the world this woman is going to get a big surprise when she gets home. The essential clause of the sentence tells why the woman will be surprised – because she forgot her purse.
2. The Nonessential Clause
As you can probably guess, the nonessential clause carries that name because you could remove it from a sentence and the sentence would be just fine without it. These clauses are also known as non-restrictive or non-defining clauses.
My uncle, who lives on a horse ranch, is going to bring my birthday present next week.
In this sentence, the clause marked in bold lettering is nonessential because you could remove it and the sentence wouldn’t lose its essential meaning. That meaning being the fact that the writer is expecting a birthday present next week from his wonderful uncle. The additional information that the uncle lives on a horse ranch is irrelevant to the sentence.
Do you want to know a secret for spotting nonessential clauses easily?
They are almost always set off with a comma.
I came in second, which gets me a red ribbon.
My chair, which is older than dirt, squeaks every time I move.
See? Commas either bookend or begin a nonessential clause. Take out what comes between or after the comma and the sentence’s essential message is the same.
So What Does the Clause Have to Do with Which vs That?
Simply put, you use that for essential clauses and which for everything else. Here are two examples.
Our yard that has the big rose bushes could use a good mowing.
Our yard, which has the big rose bushes, could use a good mowing.
You see the difference? I know it’s a subtle difference – but stick with me.
In the first sentence, the reader is introduced to a yard that needs mowing. The way the reader knows which yard needs mowing is by the use of the essential clause “that has the big rose bushes.” This brings the reader to the conclusion that the owner of the yard has multiple yards but only one of them has the big rose bushes.
The clause in the first sentence cannot be left out. It specifies which yard needs mowing. Therefore, it is an essential clause and needs to begin with the word that.
Now, look at the second sentence. In this sentence, the reader is led to believe that there is only one yard. The big rose bushes are almost an afterthought. If you took out the clause, the reader would still have “Our yard could use a good mowing.” This makes the clause in this sentence nonessential which means it should start with the word which. Also notice that the clause has been set apart by the use of commas.
But What If I’m the Author?
So far we have covered how to determine if something you are reading is correct. But what if you are the honored writer who has to create the masterpiece? How do you know if you should use which or that?
What it’s going to come down to is your intent. You need to be sure of what are you intending to say in the sentence, and whether or not the specifics that you are including in the sentence are important.
Let’s say you’re writing for the school newspaper about a big football game coming up. I’m going to write two likely sentences and leave the which vs. that choice blank. Yes – it’s a little quiz! Let’s see how you do.
The coach gave a booklet to the players ______ contained all of the plays for the big game. Stanley, the running back, was out sick so his friend Freddie brought him a copy of the booklet _____ contained the plays.
You think you have it?
In the first sentence, we would use that because the clause at the end of the sentence is essential to the sentence itself. If you removed it, you would just have “The coach gave the booklet to the players.” Wait. What booklet? What’s it for? The fact that the booklet contains the plays for the big game is essential information.
Now, in the second sentence, you have already established what the booklet is for in the first sentence. The clause at the end of the second sentence is now nonessential. Therefore, you would use the word which in the second sentence. You would also put a comma to separate the clause from the rest of the sentence.
Stanley, the running back, was out sick so his friend Freddie brought him a copy of the booklet, which contained the plays.
I know it can be tricky but basically, the rule of thumb is if the clause can be taken out of the sentence and still keep the sentence’s meaning, use which. Otherwise, you would use that.
Practicing Which vs That
Here are some more sentences so you can practice a little. See how many you can get right. I won’t tell you which one is correct though. Just kidding! The answers are below the questions.
- Dogs ___ have spots are adopted more often than solid color dogs.
- I had an idea ___ is new for me, of how we could decorate for the dance.
- I sang the National Anthem ___ was a privilege.
- The kid ___ was hanging around after school got arrested.
- The musical ___ is my favorite, is “Cats.”
- That. Without the “that have spots” clause, you wouldn’t know what was adopted more often than solid color dogs.
- Which. You can remove the “which is new for me” clause and still know that you had an idea for decorating the dance.
- Which. The fact that you sang the anthem is the essential part of the sentence; “which was a privilege” is just adding nonessential information.
- That. Without the “that was hanging around” clause you wouldn’t know which kid got arrested.
- That. If you took “that is my favorite” out of the sentence, then you would just have “The musical is ‘Cats.’” This leaves out the essential phrase that “Cats” is the writer’s favorite.
Is Somebody Changing the Rules?
In the debate over which vs. that, some writing authorities are starting to give the OK to use which for both kinds of clauses. However, they are still sticking with the rule that if you are going to use the word that, then you need to only use it for the essential clauses. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary is one of the authorities giving this practice their seal of approval. However, most professional writers, especially legal writers, still adhere to the rules outlined here, and I recommend you do too.