Pavement pedantry: which vs. that

We take on the 'that' vs. 'which' grammar debacle...

By: Nicola Robey,   2 minutes

Which vs. That

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!

So when do you use that, and when do you use which?

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:

  • Dogs that swim smell grim

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:

  • Dogs, which are fluffy, are quite nice to touch

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…

  1. Ouija boards which/ that are operated by cynical teenage girls, are great at conjuring spirits.
  2. A mogwai, which/ that comes into contact with water will turn into a gremlin.
  3. If you’re in a horror film, sinister noises which/ that happen behind closed doors, should never be investigated alone.

Leave your answers in the comments below.

Latest Stories