Which vs. That: Mastering the Use of These Common Words Correctly

Marcus Froland

Getting your words right can turn a good sentence into a great one. But sometimes, English throws us curveballs. Especially when it comes to tiny words with big impacts. Today, we’re tackling two of those tricky customers: “which” and “that”.

These little words can change the meaning of your sentence or even leave readers scratching their heads if used incorrectly. And let’s be honest, we’ve all been there, trying to figure out if our sentence needs a “which” or a “that”. It’s like they’re playing hide and seek with us. But fear not! By the end of this piece, you’ll have these two figured out.

The choice between them might seem like a small detail, but it’s one that can make all the difference. So, **how do you decide?** Stick around, because you’re about to find out.

In English, knowing when to use “which” and “that” correctly can be tricky. Here’s a simple guide to get it right. Use “that” for essential information. This means if you remove the clause that follows “that,” the sentence loses its meaning. For example, “I only read books that make me think.” Here, the part after “that” is crucial to understanding what kind of books are being talked about.

On the other hand, use “which” for non-essential information. This is extra info that, if removed, doesn’t change the main meaning of the sentence. It’s often set off by commas. For instance, “The book, which I bought yesterday, is fascinating.” Whether you know when the book was bought doesn’t affect the main point: the speaker finds the book fascinating.

Remembering this difference will help you choose the right word and make your writing clearer.

Understanding the Basics: Definitions and Differences

When it comes to mastering English grammar, understanding the correct use of relative pronouns is essential for writing with clarity and precision. Here, we will talk about the basics of relative pronouns, the difference between restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses, and how to choose between “which” and “that.”

What Are Relative Pronouns?

Relative pronouns are words that introduce clauses, offering additional information about nouns or pronouns mentioned elsewhere in a sentence. Common relative pronouns include “who,” “whom,” “whose,” “which,” and “that.” These words are vital to grammar basics and clause introduction, as they help connect different parts of a sentence to create a cohesive and easy-to-follow message.

The Key to Knowing When to Use “Which” and “That”

The primary factor determining whether to use “which” or “that” is the essentiality of the information within the clause they introduce. An essential clause is one that provides critical information to the sentence’s meaning, and these clauses call for “that.” In contrast, a non-essential clause provides supplementary information that can be removed without changing the meaning of the main statement. In this case, you should use “which.”

Restrictive vs. Nonrestrictive Clauses Explained

When discussing the usage of “which” and “that,” it’s important to understand the differences between restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses. These two concepts are key to achieving writing clarity and following grammar tips effectively.

Restrictive clauses are integral to a sentence’s meaning and identify a specific element of the noun they refer to. When a restrictive clause is removed, the sentence’s structure is disrupted, and it lacks essential information.

Nonrestrictive clauses add extra information but aren’t essential in defining or restricting their referred noun. They’re often set apart by commas or other punctuation like dashes or parentheses. These clauses can be removed without altering the main message of the sentence.

To further clarify the differences between these two types of clauses, let’s analyze them with the help of an example:

  1. Restrictive clause: The bike that has a broken seat belongs to me.
  2. Nonrestrictive clause: My bike, which has a broken seat, is parked outside.
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In the first example, the clause “that has a broken seat” is necessary for identifying which bike we’re talking about, implying that there might be multiple bikes. In contrast, the second example simply provides additional information about the speaker’s bike and is not essential for understanding the overall meaning of the sentence.

Recognizing the distinction between restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses will help you use “which” and “that” correctly, and by offering clear, concise, and easy-to-understand writing, you’ll be able to effectively communicate your ideas.

“That”: Identifying Its Role in Restrictive Clauses

The role of that in American English is to introduce restrictive clauses and provide essential, defining information about the subject within a sentence. In this section, we will examine the importance of using that when working with restrictive clauses and identify examples that demonstrate its proper application.

Restrictive clauses are critical in distinguishing specific elements of the subject or providing necessary context for accurate interpretation. Removing a restrictive clause from a sentence may lead to confusion or ambiguity, as the sentence’s intended meaning becomes compromised or unclear. Unlike nonrestrictive clauses, which are introduced by which and provide non-essential details, restrictive clauses offer crucial information and are therefore almost always introduced by that.

Remember: Restrictive clauses are indispensable to the meaning of a sentence. You can recognize them by their use of that and their absence of commas to separate them from the main sentence.

To further illustrate this concept, consider the following examples of sentences containing restrictive clauses:

  1. The movie that won the Oscar is a must-see.
  2. I ate the sandwich that my friend made for me.
  3. The laptop that has 16GB of RAM is perfect for video editing.

In each of these examples, the restrictive clause introduced by that is essential to the meaning of the sentence. Removing the clause would result in insufficient or unclear information:

  • The movie is a must-see. (Which movie?)
  • I ate the sandwich. (Which sandwich?)
  • The laptop is perfect for video editing. (Which laptop?)

Thus, when writing sentences that require defining information to be accurately understood, it is vital to employ that in restrictive clauses to clearly and concisely convey the intended meaning. Grasping the role of that within the context of restrictive clauses is a fundamental aspect of improving writing clarity and precision, leading to more effective communication overall.

The Use of “Which” in Nonrestrictive Clauses

Now that you have a good understanding of restrictive clauses and their connection to the word “that,” let’s explore nonrestrictive clauses and how they’re linked to the relative pronoun “which.” These clauses provide additional information that, while interesting or helpful, is not indispensable to the primary message of the sentence. Unlike restrictive clauses, nonrestrictive clauses do not alter or limit the meaning of the main subject and can be omitted without affecting its overall understanding.

He recommended a book, which won the Pulitzer Prize, for our book club.

In the example above, “which won the Pulitzer Prize” is the nonrestrictive clause, introducing additional details about the book without changing its implied significance. Even without this clause, the sentence retains its core meaning: “He recommended a book for our book club.”

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Properly punctuating nonrestrictive clauses is crucial for maintaining clarity in your writing. Commas, dashes, or parentheses help to set them apart from the main sentence and signal that the information contained within the clause is non-essential. Keep in mind that commas are most commonly used.

The Great Barrier Reef, which is the largest coral reef system in the world, is a popular tourist destination.

As you can see, commas are used to set off the nonrestrictive clause, “which is the largest coral reef system in the world.” You can remove this clause from the sentence, leaving “The Great Barrier Reef is a popular tourist destination” without affecting the primary message.

Let’s look at some key instances when to use “which” in nonrestrictive clauses:

  • When adding interesting or useful details that don’t substantially change the meaning of the sentence.
  • When providing supplemental context or background information to clarify an idea.
  • When the sentence retains its core meaning and clarity, even if the clause is omitted.

Understanding the difference between restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses and knowing when to use “which” or “that” in these cases is essential to maintaining clear communication and avoiding confusion in your writing. By recognizing the implications of each clause type and using the appropriate relative pronoun, you can ensure that your sentences effectively convey their intended meaning.

Practical Examples: “Which” and “That” in Sentences

To better understand the difference between “which” and “that” in sentences, we’ll look at some grammar examples. See how the usage of these words impacts sentence structure and clarity.

The following examples demonstrate how “‘that’ limits” to provide necessary information, whereas “‘which’ describes” by offering additional, non-essential details.

  1. The laptop that has a 15-inch screen is on sale. (restrictive, essential information)The laptop, which has a 15-inch screen, is on sale. (nonrestrictive, additional information)
  2. I took the bus that goes to the city center. (restrictive, essential information)I took the bus, which goes to the city center. (nonrestrictive, additional information)
  3. The book that won the Pulitzer Prize is an excellent read. (restrictive, essential information)The book, which won the Pulitzer Prize, is an excellent read. (nonrestrictive, additional information)

In these examples, the meaning of the sentences changes drastically depending on the choice between “which” and “that.” Take note of the differences resulting from the use of restrictive or nonrestrictive clauses.

Restrictive Examples Nonrestrictive Examples
The vegetables that are high in vitamins are broccoli and spinach. The vegetables, which are high in vitamins, include broccoli and spinach.
The cars that have been recalled had faulty airbags. The cars, which have been recalled, had faulty airbags.
She only buys electronics that are energy efficient. She only buys electronics, which are energy efficient.
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As seen in these examples, learning the proper usage of “which” and “that” ensures clearer communication and more effective sentence structure. By understanding the different implications of these relative pronouns when constructing sentences, you can avoid confusion and make your writing more precise.

Common Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

When it comes to using “which” and “that,” many writers face grammar mistakes as these relative pronouns are often used interchangeably. However, their correct application depends on the type of clause they introduce – restrictive or nonrestrictive. To avoid confusion and ensure correct word usage, follow these tips:

First, evaluate whether the information provided by the clause is essential to the overall meaning of the sentence. If it is crucial, use “that” to introduce a restrictive clause; otherwise, use “which” for nonrestrictive clauses. Remember, restrictive clauses offer indispensable details, whereas nonrestrictive clauses serve to add extra, non-essential information. By making this distinction, you will significantly improve your written communication.

Next, pay close attention to punctuation. Nonrestrictive clauses introduced by “which” should be set off by commas, as these give a hint to your readers that the information is not vital to the sentence’s meaning. On the other hand, restrictive clauses with “that” do not require commas. Being mindful of punctuation will help enhance the clarity of your writing and prevent misinterpretation.

Finally, practice makes perfect. Dedicate time to studying real-life examples of sentences using “which” and “that,” and try incorporating these pronouns correctly in your own writing. Through consistent practice and attention to detail, you’ll sharpen your grammar skills and effectively convey your intended message to your audience.

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