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"Which" Versus "That"

A simple rule and an advanced rule.

By
Mignon Fogarty
October 30, 2009
Episode #195

Page 1 of 2

Since Halloween is coming up, I thought you could use a refresher about “whiches”—more specifically, when to use a “which” and when to use a “that.”

To understand the difference between “which” and “that,” first you need to understand the difference between a restrictive element and a non-restrictive element, because the simple rule is to use “that” with a restrictive element and “which” with a non-restrictive element. OK, don't worry; it's easy.

Restrictive Clauses and Nonrestrictive Clauses

A restrictive element is just part of a sentence you can’t get rid of because it specifically restricts the noun. Here's an example:

Desserts that contain chocolate please Squiggly.

The words “that contain” restrict the kind of desserts we're talking about. Without those words, the meaning of the sentence would change. Without them, we'd be saying that all desserts please Squiggly, not just the ones with chocolate.

Desserts that contain chocolate please Squiggly.

Restrictive elements aren't surrounded by commas.

Here's another example:

Jackhammers that don't have noise-dampening technology are on sale.

We can't get rid of the words “that don't have noise-dampening technology” because then we'd be saying all jackhammers are on sale, not just the special ones; so that means the clause is restrictive.

And another example:

Dogs that howl make me crazy.

I can't get rid of the words “that howl” because then I'd be saying all dogs make me crazy, not just the ones that howl, which isn't true.

On the other hand, a non-restrictive element is something that can be left off without changing the meaning of the sentence. A nonrestrictive element is simply additional information.

Chocolate desserts, which are his favorites, please Squiggly.

Leaving out the words “which are his favorites” doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence. With or without the words “which are his favorites,” we know that chocolate desserts please Squiggly.   Nonrestrictive elements are surrounded by commas.

Here's another example:

Jackhammers, which are useful for breaking up concrete, are on sale.

We could throw out the words “which are useful for breaking up concrete” and the meaning of the sentence wouldn't change. Those words are just extra, meaning they're non-restrictive, surrounded by commas, and “which” is the right word choice.

And another example.

Dogs, which make great companions, are usually furry.

Again, we could throw out the words “which make great companions” and not change the meaning of the sentence. Dogs are still usually furry. Those words, “which make great companions,” are just extra, meaning they're non-restrictive, surrounded by commas, and “which” is the right word choice.

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