Which vs That
People often mix up the words ‘which’ and ‘that’ in writing sentences. But there is a subtle but important difference between those two words when used in a sentence. Some people simply explain it this way: if there is necessary information in the clause you are adding, then use that; if it is extra information and not essential, then use which.
Grammatically explaining, the general rule adhered is, use “that” for restrictive relative clauses and “which” for non-restrictive relative clauses. Let us now see what is meant by clause, relative clause and restrictive/ non-restrictive clause.
A clause is a part of a sentence, a relative clause tells us which person or thing (or what kind of person or thing) the speaker means. There are two types of relative clause, restrictive and non-restrictive.
When we are talking about things we use ‘that’ or ‘which’ in a clause. Instead, ‘who’ is used in a relative clause, when we talk about a person. Sometimes we also use that instead of who for people, but we can’t use which for people.
Where is the nearest shop that sells newspapers?
The woman who lives next door is a doctor.
Now we will see the two types of relative clause.
Type1: Kathy works for a company that makes furniture.
In this sentence the relative clause tells you what kind of a company the speaker means. It is a restrictive clause. We do not use commas with these clauses.
Type 2: “James told me about his new job, which he’s enjoying very much.”
“We stayed at the Park Hotel, which a friend of ours recommended.”
In these sentences, the relative clauses do not tell you which things the speaker means. We already know which things are meant; James’s job and the Park Hotel.
The relative clauses here give additional information about the things, not essential information. These are non-restrictive clauses. We use comma with these clauses.
If you get a clear idea about restrictive and non-restrictive clauses (restrictive – necessary; non-restrictive –extra & non-essential), then all what you need to remember is use ‘that’ without comma for restrictive relative clause and if the clause is non-restrictive relative use ‘which’ with comma.
To make it easier to remember, whenever the information you want to communicate is essential in identifying the noun, the proper pronoun to use is ‘that.’ If the information is not essential, or can be set apart with commas, then the pronoun ‘which’ is more likely to be correct.
If you are not sure whether the relative clause is essential or not, you can simply try by removing the relative clause and ask yourself if the sentence sounds complete and informative.
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