Difference Between Similar Terms and Objects

Difference Between That and Which

The distinction between “that” and “which” in English grammar is often related to restrictive (defining) and non-restrictive (non-defining) clauses, respectively. Understanding when to use “that” and when to use “which” enhances clarity and precision in writing.

“That” is commonly used in restrictive clauses, which are essential to the sentence’s meaning. These clauses provide necessary information, and omitting them could alter the intended message. For example: “The car that is parked in the driveway belongs to John.” Here, the restrictive clause “that is parked in the driveway” specifies which car is being referred to and is crucial for understanding the sentence.

On the other hand, “which” is typically used in non-restrictive clauses, which offer additional information but are not necessary for the sentence’s core meaning. Non-restrictive clauses are set off by commas. For instance: “The car, which is parked in the driveway, is red.” In this case, the non-restrictive clause “which is parked in the driveway” provides extra information about the car’s location but is not essential to identifying the car.

The choice between “that” and “which” depends on whether the clause is restrictive (that is, necessary for the sentence’s core meaning) or non-restrictive (providing additional, non-essential information). Adhering to this distinction contributes to clear and precise communication in writing.

When to use “that”?

The word “that” is often used as a relative pronoun in English, introducing a restrictive (defining) relative clause. Here are some instances when you should use “that”:

Restrictive Clauses: “That” is used to introduce restrictive clauses that are essential for understanding the noun they modify. These clauses provide crucial information that cannot be omitted without changing the meaning of the sentence. For example:

  • The book that I borrowed from the library is fascinating.
  • The car that is parked in the driveway belongs to my neighbor.

Identifying or Restricting Information: “That” is used when you want to specify or restrict the information about a particular noun. It helps in narrowing down the options and providing a more precise description.

  • I need the document that is on your desk.
  • He wants the laptop that has the highest processing speed.

After Demonstrative Pronouns: “That” is commonly used after demonstrative pronouns (this, that, these, those) to introduce a restrictive clause.

  • This is the book that I was talking about.
  • Those are the shoes that I want to buy.

Remember that the use of “that” for restrictive clauses is more common in American English, while British English allows for more flexibility, often using “which” in restrictive clauses as well. However, adhering to consistency within a piece of writing or following specific style guidelines is important.

When to use “which”?

The word “which” is often used as a relative pronoun to introduce non-restrictive (non-defining) relative clauses. Here are some instances when you should use “which”:

Non-Restrictive Clauses: “Which” is used to introduce non-restrictive clauses, which provide additional information about a noun but are not essential for understanding the main idea of the sentence. These clauses are set off by commas. For example:

  • The house, which is painted blue, is for sale.
  • My computer, which I bought last year, is malfunctioning.

Additional, Non-Essential Information: “Which” is employed when you want to add descriptive details or comments that are not integral to identifying or restricting the noun. This usage allows for a smoother flow of information.

  • The novel, which won several awards, is being adapted into a movie.
  • The project, which took months to complete, was a great success.

After Prepositions: “Which” is often used after prepositions when the relative clause follows a prepositional phrase.

  • She visited the museum, about which she had read so much.
  • The park, through which the river flows, is a popular spot.

After a Comma: When introducing a clause that could be omitted without altering the core meaning of the sentence, “which” is appropriate. The non-restrictive clause is usually separated by commas.

  • I bought a new phone, which has impressive features.
  • Our team won the championship, which was unexpected.

“Which” is used to introduce non-restrictive clauses that provide additional, non-essential information about a noun. These clauses are set off by commas and contribute supplementary details to the sentence.

Examples with “That” (Restrictive Clauses):

The laptop that I bought last week is already malfunctioning.

  • Here, “that I bought last week” is a restrictive clause that specifies which laptop is being referred to.

The movie that we watched yesterday was fantastic.

  • In this sentence, “that we watched yesterday” is a restrictive clause providing essential information about the movie.

The book that is on the shelf is mine.

  • “That is on the shelf” restrictively identifies the specific book being referred to.

Examples with “Which” (Non-Restrictive Clauses):

My car, which is parked outside, needs a new battery.

  • The non-restrictive clause “which is parked outside” adds extra information about the car but is not essential for identifying it.

The city, which I visited last summer, has a rich history.

  • “Which I visited last summer” is a non-restrictive clause providing additional details about the city.

The project, which took months to complete, was finally finished.

  • Here, the non-restrictive clause “which took months to complete” gives extra information about the project.

More Examples to show the Difference:

The car that is blue belongs to Sarah.

  • The restrictive clause “that is blue” is crucial for identifying the specific car owned by Sarah.

The car, which is blue, belongs to Sarah.

  • The non-restrictive clause “which is blue” adds descriptive information but doesn’t limit which car is being referred to; it’s already identified.

The laptop that you mentioned is in the living room.

  • The restrictive clause “that you mentioned” specifies which laptop is being discussed.

The laptop, which you mentioned, is in the living room.

  • The non-restrictive clause “which you mentioned” provides additional information about the laptop but is not crucial for identification.

“that” is used in restrictive clauses essential for identifying a specific noun, while “which” introduces non-restrictive clauses, providing additional, non-essential information about a noun.

Here’s a comparison table to show the key differences between “which” and “that” when used in relative clauses:


Usage of “That”:

The relative pronoun “that” is primarily employed to introduce restrictive relative clauses. These clauses are often described as defining because they furnish essential information required to identify the noun they modify. The omission of a restrictive clause can lead to a significant alteration in the intended meaning of the sentence. To illustrate this usage, consider the example: “The book that I borrowed from the library is fascinating.”

In this sentence, the restrictive clause “that I borrowed from the library” is crucial for specifying which book is being referred to. The use of “that” in this context conveys that the fascinating book is the one borrowed from the library and not any other book. Omitting this restrictive clause would introduce ambiguity, leaving the reader uncertain about which particular book is fascinating.

It is important to note that the use of “that” for restrictive clauses is more common in American English. In British English, there is often more flexibility, and “which” is also accepted in restrictive clauses. However, maintaining consistency within a piece of writing or adhering to specific style guidelines is essential.

Understanding when to employ “that” in restrictive clauses enhances the precision of communication and ensures that the reader can accurately discern the intended meaning without confusion.

The usage of “that” is characterized by its introduction of restrictive relative clauses, providing essential information for the identification of a noun. Its application is pivotal in cases where clarity and specificity are paramount, preventing potential misunderstandings that may arise from the omission of crucial details.

Usage of “Which”:

“Which” is employed to introduce non-restrictive relative clauses, which, unlike their restrictive counterparts, do not serve to define or specify a noun. Instead, non-restrictive clauses offer supplementary details that contribute to a more comprehensive understanding of the noun but can be omitted without altering the essential meaning of the sentence. These clauses are set off by commas, distinguishing them visually from the rest of the sentence.

For instance, consider the example: “The house, which is painted blue, is for sale.” In this sentence, the non-restrictive clause “which is painted blue” adds descriptive information about the house. The blue paint is an additional detail that enhances the reader’s understanding of the house but is not crucial for identifying which specific house is for sale. The inclusion or omission of this non-restrictive clause does not fundamentally alter the core meaning of the sentence.

The use of “which” in non-restrictive clauses allows for a more fluid and expansive expression of information. It introduces details that contribute to the richness of the narrative without imposing restrictions on the essential identity of the noun. The use of commas around the non-restrictive clause serves as a visual cue, indicating to the reader that the information within the commas is supplemental.

Understanding when to use “which” in non-restrictive clauses facilitates effective communication and helps writers convey additional, enriching details without the risk of introducing ambiguity. It provides a means for expressing additional information that enhances the overall context of a sentence without restricting the core meaning to a specific identifier.

The usage of “which” is characterized by its introduction of non-restrictive relative clauses, offering non-essential, supplementary information about the noun. The application of “which” provides writers with a tool for conveying descriptive details that contribute to a more comprehensive and nuanced understanding of the subject matter.

Frequently asked questions

What is the main difference between “which” and “that” in relative clauses?

The main difference lies in their usage: “that” introduces restrictive clauses, while “which” introduces non-restrictive clauses.

How do restrictive relative clauses differ from non-restrictive ones?

Restrictive clauses are essential for identifying the noun, and their omission changes the sentence’s meaning. Non-restrictive clauses provide additional, non-essential information and are set off by commas.

When should I use “that” in a sentence?

Use “that” when introducing a restrictive relative clause that is crucial for defining or identifying the noun.

Can “that” be used in non-restrictive clauses?

While less common, some styles in American English allow for flexibility, but it is generally not recommended.

When is “which” used?

“Which” is used to introduce non-restrictive relative clauses that provide extra, descriptive details without defining the noun.

Do I need commas with “that” clauses?

No, restrictive clauses introduced by “that” do not require commas. Commas are reserved for non-restrictive clauses introduced by “which.”

Are there exceptions to using “that” in restrictive clauses?

Some flexibility exists, especially in British English, where “which” can also be used in restrictive clauses.

Is there a preference between “which” and “that” in American and British English?

American English tends to prefer “that” for restrictive clauses, while British English may allow more flexibility.

Why is it important to use the correct relative pronoun?

Using the correct pronoun ensures clarity and precision in communication, preventing potential misunderstandings.

Can “which” clauses ever be restrictive?

No, “which” is primarily used for non-restrictive clauses. If clarity is crucial, it’s recommended to rephrase the sentence.

Should I always use “which” for non-restrictive clauses?

While “which” is the standard choice, some writers use “that” for non-restrictive clauses in informal contexts.

What happens if I use “which” instead of “that” in a restrictive clause?

It might be considered non-standard, but in some cases, it could be acceptable. However, using “that” in restrictive clauses is generally recommended.

Can I omit “that” or “which” in certain cases?

While not common, in informal contexts, especially in spoken English, relative pronouns can be omitted when the meaning is clear.

Do restrictive and non-restrictive clauses affect sentence structure?

Restrictive clauses are integrated into the sentence, while non-restrictive clauses are set off by commas, influencing the overall flow.

How do I choose between “that” and “which” in everyday writing?

For restrictive clauses, choose “that” for a standard approach. For non-restrictive clauses, use “which” and set off the clause with commas.

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References :

[0]Strunk, W., Jr., & White, E. B. (2000). The Elements of Style (4th ed.). Longman.

[1]Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary

[2]Garner, B. A. (2016). Garner's Modern English Usage (4th ed.). Oxford University Press.

[3]The University of Chicago Press. (2017). The Chicago Manual of Style (17th ed.). The University of Chicago Press.

[4]Image credit: https://www.canva.com/photos/MAEEmygVHQo-this-and-or-that/

[5]Image credit: https://www.canva.com/photos/MAED7EcCYFc-which/

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