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Which or that. Which one do you use when in a sentence? That one? This one? WHICH ONE?
Many people use these pesky pronouns interchangeably, but if we’re going to be pedantic about it (and obviously we’re going to be), that’s not correct. If you get it wrong, the meaning of your sentence actually changes ever so slightly.
Solicitors and lawyers are taught the right way to do this in their papers because a mix-up could lead to a full-blown legal misunderstanding. So, you see, getting it right isn’t only a pendant’s prerogative, it’s a matter of justice!
A (relatively simple) rule of thumb is to use ‘that’ with restrictive clauses and ‘which’ with nonrestrictive clauses. Here’s what those confusing words mean in practice:
1. That: use with a restrictive clause
A restrictive clause is part of a sentence that you can’t get rid of because it specifically restricts some other part of the sentence. Here’s an example:
The words that swim restrict the kind of dogs you’re talking about. Without them, the meaning of the sentence would change. Without them, you’d be saying that all dogs smell, not just the dogs that swim. (And note that you don’t need commas around the words that swim.)
2. Which: use with a nonrestrictive clause
A nonrestrictive clause is something that can be left off without changing the meaning of the sentence. You can think of a nonrestrictive clause as simply additional information. Here’s an example:
Because in our minds, dogs are always nice to touch, leaving out the words, which are fluffy, doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence. (Also note that the phrase is surrounded by commas. Nonrestrictive clauses are usually surrounded by, or preceded by commas).
As an extra pedant parting gift, when referring to people you should always use who. For example, ‘the boys who chew gum’, or ‘the ladies who carve pumpkins’.
See if you can work out which one goes where…
Leave your answers in the comments below.