That vs. Which

Nat RussoGrammar, How-To, Misused Words, Writing 30 Comments

[DISCLAIMER: My grammar advice is trustworthy for American English. Not so much if you’re in the UK. Please keep that in mind.]

Edited February 5, 2015 – Added reference to source of British usage rule.

The words “That” and “Which” are two of the most confusing words writers come face-to-face with every day.

Some of you are familiar with a grammar tip I share on Twitter:

That/Which: ‘That’ should introduce a restrictive clause (necessary for meaning). ‘Which’ is for non-restrictive (parentheticals)”

When limited to 150 characters, the whole “that vs. which” thing can seem somewhat cryptic. What the heck is a restrictive clause? What do I mean by “Parentheticals”? I think a couple of quick examples will make it easier to understand.

Restrictive Clauses

Let’s say we’re going to ask a friend to bring us a broom. The broom we want is in a closet that has more than one broom in it. If we tell our friend “Bring me the broom that has the red stripe on the handle,” we’ve just seen an example of a restrictive clause. The phrase “that has the red stripe” is restrictive. It restricts all of the choices to a single one…the one with the red stripe. It explains preciselyΒ which broom we’re asking for.

Non-Restrictive Clauses

Now let’s change things up: “The broom with the red handle, which my sister gave me last week, is the one I need.” This is non-restrictive. The phrase “which my sister gave me” is additional information, not identifying information (my sister may have given me more than one…). It’s not necessary to convey meaning, because we already accomplished that with the reference to the red handle. Another sign that we’re looking at a non-restrictive clause is that it is set off by commas.

Wait! What About People?

It gets slightly more confusing when we’re dealing with people, since we don’t refer to people as THAT’s or WHICH’s, so you have to pay attention to the semantics of what’s being communicated. Ask yourself if the phrase identifies the subject or merely supplies additional information.

The guy who drives the Impala was here yesterday.

The phrase “who drives the Impala” is identifying. Without it we have no idea which “guy” the speaker is talking about! Therefore we’re dealing with a restrictive clause.

Mr Smith, who drives the Impala, was here yesterday.

The phrase “who drives the Impala”, in this case, is non-identifying, and therefore non-restrictive. The reference to the Impala is nothing more than additional information. The subject has already been identified specifically as “Mr. Smith”. Also…look at those beautiful commas!

[Edit: 2/5/2015] I’d like to thank “Ben Morris tweeting” for the following reference. Those of you curious about the British English usage should definitely check this out.



What are some of the more confusing word usages you struggle with every day? Let me know in the comments below!

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About Nat Russo

Nat Russo is the Amazon #1 Bestselling Fantasy author of Necromancer Awakening and Necromancer Falling. Nat was born in New York, raised in Arizona, and has lived just about everywhere in-between. He’s gone from pizza maker, to radio DJ, to Catholic seminarian (in a Benedictine monastery, of all places), to police officer, to software engineer. His career has taken him from central Texas to central Germany, where he worked as a defense contractor for Northrop Grumman. He's spent most of his adult life developing software, playing video games, running a Cub Scout den, gaining/losing weight, and listening to every kind of music under the sun. Along the way he managed to earn a degree in Philosophy and a black belt in Tang Soo Do. He currently makes his home in central Texas with his wife, teenager, mischievous beagle, and goofy boxador.

Comments 30

  1. When I check my blog stories on Word “that and which” are often highlighted. Word offers me better word choices or suggests I replace one with the other. Thanks for this grammar tip. Hopefully I will make the correct choice and Word will pick on me for something else.

    1. Carol, have you heard of Scrivener? I had used Word exclusively for many years, and about a year ago I was turned on to Scrivener by some writer friends on Twitter. There’s a small learning curve associated with it, but I don’t think I’d ever go back to Word. It really is a “one stop shop” for writers. They have two versions, one for Windows and the other for Mac. Definitely worth looking into!

    2. Thanks for the tip, Nat. Based on your suggestion, I’ve started using Scrivener to help construct technical articles and lecture notes. Even though those documents aren’t terribly long, usually three to five pages, they are very information dense. Scrivener helps with ordering the flow of topics and managing the wealth of source material required.

    3. Post

      Hey Adam!

      Scrivener was a game-changer for me, and I’ve just barely cracked the surface of its feature set. I don’t run a Mac OS at home yet, so I’m still using the Windows version. I’m looking forward to the day the versions reach feature parity, but until then the Windows version is lagging behind a bit (though I think most of the differences are purely cosmetic).

    4. I’ve also recently begun to use Scrivener, which (!) I have found incredibly helpful for organizing my writing. The learning curve is not steep and well worth it. By the way, you can convert anything you write in Scrivener to a Word document.

  2. Made it to your blog from your tweets and it is really useful – so many blogs are a good effort but ‘meh’. Thanks Nat! Look forward to more. πŸ™‚

    1. I appreciate it, Jacqueline! I’m hoping to document my “lessons learned” as I go through the process so that other aspiring writers can avoid some of the pitfalls I fell into.

  3. Hey Nat, I am so glad I came across your site, very helpful. Its been a very long time since I have been in school, if I remember correctly, english and grammar were not one of my strong points.LOL This never really bothered me much until 8 months ago when I decided to start blogging.
    I believe your site is like a mini gold pot for writing illiterates like me.

  4. ‘That’ introduces essentiality, ‘which’ non-essentiality.

    Both are used with things.

    ‘The bus that fell over the bridge was his.’

    ‘The bus that fell over the bridge, which was only bought a week earlier, was his.

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