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Issue 6
January 2017
Nitpick
Nifty tips on how to write and speak more effectively
 
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When to use “that” and “which”
 
Years ago, when I was a rookie proofreader at Your Money magazine, the editor handed out a photocopy on when to use “that” and “which.” Writers, she said, often use these words interchangeably when they shouldn’t.

That photocopy was confusing when it didn’t need to be, but I eventually learned when to choose “that” over “which” and vice versa.

If you find yourself tripping up over these two words, it helps to understand their role in a sentence.

“That” and “which” are connecting words (a.k.a. relative pronouns). They link the main part of a sentence (a.k.a. the main clause) to a secondary part (another clause).

Let’s look at the following:

Leah held up her finger, which was broken.

Leah held up the finger that was broken.

The first sentence tells us that Leah held up her finger and, by the way, that it’s broken. It gives us information about her finger that doesn’t change the meaning of the main clause (“Leah held up her finger.”)

The second sentence specifies which finger Leah held up (the broken one). Unlike in the first sentence, this information is essential to the meaning of the sentence. It wouldn’t make sense to simply say “Leah held up the finger,” would it?

Now, stay with me.

In the second sentence, “that was broken” is a restrictive clause. It restricts the other part of the sentence.

In the first sentence, “which was broken” is a non-restrictive clause. In other words, you could chop it off and still have a meaningful sentence.

So, when you’re deciding between “that” and “which,” remember this quick rule of thumb:

Choose “which” if your sentence doesn’t need the secondary clause to make sense; choose “that” if it does.

Want an even simpler rule of thumb?

If you can insert a comma (or two), use “which.”

For example:

Trump’s tweets, which are plentiful, are keeping companies on their toes.

I missed hearing Meryl Streep’s most recent speech, which she gave at last week’s Golden Globe Awards.
 

Now, test yourself! Choose the correct pronoun in the following sentences:

1. Vehicles (that/which) run on electricity are becoming popular.

2. There was a snowstorm in Saskatoon last night (that/which) caused several accidents.

3. Sara’s grammar books (that/which) are on her night table are gathering dust.

Answers:
 

1. That. Vehicles that run on electricity are becoming popular.

“That” restricts which vehicles are becoming popular. If you chose “which,” you’d be saying that all vehicles run on electricity.


2. Which. There was a snowstorm in Saskatoon last night, which caused several accidents.

There was only one snowstorm in Saskatoon last night and, by the way, it caused several accidents.


3. That and which — they’re both correct!

Sara’s grammar books, which are on her night table, are gathering dust.

This tells you that all of my grammar books are gathering dust and — should you want to know — they
’re on my night table. (Note the two commas.)

 
Sara’s grammar books that are on her night table are gathering dust.
 

This sentence tells you which of my grammar books are gathering dust (the ones on my night table). It implies that my other grammar books (the ones on my bookshelf, for example) aren’t gathering dust.

The books on my night table shall remain nameless.
 
 

 
 
Sara Bedal is a writer, editor and plain-language specialist. She helps organizations tell their stories clearly, creatively and concisely.
Photo: Angela Durante Dukát, DUKÁT PHOTOS
 
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