If you’re like me, you have safely become a successful adult by completely avoiding situations that involve complex use of the words, “which” and “that.” They’re confusing, and hard to understand. Below is a quick and easy guide to getting rid of the stress associated with these two rascals, so that you can properly use them in a sentence. Knowledge is power, and confidence is key!
So What’s the Difference?
There’s a very subtle difference between the two words, but understanding that difference is key to using the correct word in the correct way. Take the two sentences below for example:
- The shoes, which are expensive, smelled like rubber.
- The shoes that are expensive smelled like rubber.
Here we see two sentences that are virtually the same, except for swapping “which” for “that.” By using “which” in the first sentence, I am expressing that all of the shoes, which happen to be expensive, smelled like rubber. Using “that” in the second sentence expresses that only the expensive shoes smelled like rubber. The cheap shoes were perfectly okay.
Good question. And here’s the simple answer. The two words perform exact opposite tasks in the sentence.
That – Creating a Restrictive Clause
This word will restrict your topic to whatever details follow it. If you look back to the previous sentence, you will see that “shoes” became restricted to just the expensive ones when we used the word “that.” Use this word ONLY when you’re trying to restrict the item by a detail. If a detail applies to the whole group, this isn’t the word you’re looking for. Using it will create a divide in whatever you’re talking about, leaving the reader with two different groups and two different situations.
Which – The Door to Unrestrictive Clauses
When you want to just simply give more details about something, use the word “which.” It will create a whole clause devoted to describing whatever it is you’re talking about. The catch with this word though, is that it applies to the whole group. Because it’s independently describing it, you need to use a comma before and after the phrase. Look at how the phrase is isolated by commas in the following example.
- The pens, which always leak, are my least favorite.
The bolded part is the clause, which is separated by two commas. When you use commas in that way, you indicate that whatever section is there can be removed without the sentence losing its meaning. In this case, the pens will always be my least favorite, whether or not you know they leak.
Important Things to Remember
When it comes to “that” and “which,” here are the three important things you should remember:
- “That” restricts whatever you’re talking about by the details you offer.
- “Which” applies to the whole group, and is basically extra information you’re offering the reader. This section should be able to be removed without altering the sentence’s meaning.
- Commas should be used to isolate the “which” clause. You’ll pause naturally when speaking, so follow your lungs.