TIPS AND TRICKS
WHICH VS. THAT
Sometimes the choice between which and that is obvious, but other times we tend to question ourselves. This is most likely because at times both could be correct, depending on the context and/or the perspective. In addition, a fair number of people use which and that interchangeably, and this does not help the situation. In this guide, we will not discuss the independent uses of which and that, only those that could potentially be confused.
That is used to introduce a restrictive clause (i.e. a clause that contains essential information; usually you cannot remove it from the sentence without detracting from the meaning).
- Birds that migrate go south for the winter. (If we remove that migrate the sentence no longer makes sense because not all birds go south for the winter; only birds that migrate do.)
Which is used to introduce a non-restrictive clause (i.e. a clause that contains non-essential information; you can remove it from the sentence without detracting from the meaning). Non-restrictive clauses are usually surrounded by commas, though not always.
- Cars, which are usually expensive if purchased new, are very practical for commuters. (If we remove which are usually expensive if purchased new, the sentence still makes perfect sense.)
As mentioned previously, sometimes both that and which are correct in a given sentence depending on perspective.
- The store, which is near my house, is closed today.
- The store that is near my house is closed today.
In the first example, the writer is putting the emphasis on the store and the fact that it is closed while placing little importance on the fact that it is near his or her house. Perhaps the writer wished to go to the store (whether or not it was near his or her house was unimportant), but now s/he cannot because it is closed. In the second instance, however, the writer is putting much more emphasis on the fact that the store is near his or her house. In this case, there might be other stores of the same type that are open, but the one closest to him or her is closed. The difference is subtle and again depends on the intent and perspective of the writer.
The above rule for restrictive and non-restrictive clauses holds true for most sentences, but not in all instances. If a sentence containing a restrictive clause ends with a preposition, the sentence could be rearranged as to not have the preposition at the end, and this can only be done with which, even though one would expect that for a restrictive clause. NOTE: Ending a sentence with a preposition is in no way ungrammatical; should your professor, revisor, etc. take issue with sentences ending in prepositions, however, be sure to rearrange the corresponding restrictive clause as seen in the example below. For more information on this, see Ending Sentences with Prepositions.
- Maggie is eating at the table that the cat is sleeping under.
- Maggie is eating at the table under which the cat is sleeping.
Choose whether that or which is correct in the following sentences, given the context.
1. The book, which/that was written in the early eighteenth century, was almost immediately considered a classic.Answer
Einsohn, Amy. The Copyeditor’s Handbook: A Guide for Book Publishing and Corporate Communications. 2nd ed. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006.
Flick, Jane and Celia Millward. Handbook for Writers. 3rd Canadian ed. Toronto: Harcourt Brace & Company, Ltd., 1999.
Messenger, William E. et al. The Canadian Writer’s Handbook. 5th ed. Toronto: Oxford University Press Canada, 2008.
Created by: Diana Franz