That vs Which

That vs Which

by Ellen Buikema

I frequently have difficulty trying to decide whether to use “that” or “which” uncomfortable chairwhen writing. To help clear my confusion, I wandered through Professor Google to find help. The following summary of Ali Hale’s article, “That vs. Which” in Daily Writing Tips, has brought me much needed clarity.

When to Use “That” or “Which”

THAT is used to introduce a clause essential (restrictive) to the meaning of a sentence. If removed, the meaning of the sentence will change. For example:

  • Chairs that don’t have cushions are uncomfortable to sit on.
  • Card games that involve betting money should not be played in school.

WHICH is used to introduce a clause not essential (non-restrictive) to the meaning of a sentence. For example:

  • Chairs, which are found in many places of work, are often uncomfortable to sit on.
  • She sat on an uncomfortable chair, which was in her office.

Why You Need to Use “That” or “Which” Correctly

Changing that to which or vice versa can completely change the meaning of a sentence. Consider the following examples:

  • Arthur’s cat that is gray runs very fast.
  • Arthur’s cat, which is gray, runs very fast.

The first sentence uses that – suggesting Arthur owns more than one cat (and even implying his other cats might not be so fast). This is what happens if we leave out the clause and write:

  • Arthur’s cat that is gray runs very fast.
  • Arthur’s cat runs very fast.

The sentence’s meaning has changed: the reader does not know which one of Arthur’s cats runs very fast.

The sentence using which just tells the reader that Arthur’s cat is gray. We can take the clause out without losing any essential information:

  • Arthur’s cat, which is gray, runs very fast.
  • Arthur’s cat runs very fast.

“That” and “Which” in Common Usage

It is incorrect to use that for a non-restrictive clause. For example, these sentences would be considered incorrect:

  • This computer, that I have never liked, is very slow.
  • The blue desk, that my father gave me, is ugly.

Whether I like or dislike the computer, it is slow either way. The blue desk is ugly, no matter who purchased it.

An easy way to watch out for these is to look for a comma followed by the word that.

What About “Who”?

Remember, “who” should always be used when referring to people.

  • The girl who threw the ball is hiding behind the pine tree.
  • This is the man who always wears a fedora.

________________
BuikemaEllen Buikema is a writer and former teacher. A graduate of the University of Illinois at Chicago, she received her M.Ed. specializing in Early Childhood. She has extensive post-graduate studies in special education from Northeastern Illinois University. Ellen writes short stories, poetry, adult non-fiction and children’s fiction, sprinkling humor everywhere possible. Find her at EllenBuikema.com, on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and ItMattersRadio.com for a podcast interview.

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One Response to That vs Which

  1. LizMarshall says:

    Excellent, very helpful and clear, thank you!

    Like

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