That and Which

Let’s get something straight at the very beginning–when I write about grammar, I’m talking about the written word, not the spoken. Spoken language and written language are, whether the most prescriptive of us alive can stand it or not, two different things. It is my opinion that the written word needs to follow grammar rules the spoken word can let slide. Let us also get straight that American English and British English are also two different beasts. I am fully aware that the Brits use that and which pretty much interchangeably, even though their basic grammar on the matter is the same, and they prefer which, while Americans overuse that (before a verb, ie: She knew THAT she had to go home, rather than, She knew she had to go home.) The Brits also love the past imperfect at the moment–a huge no-no for American writers–but that’s a horse of a different color, and changes with the tide.

Disclaimer noted!

I’ve written on this subject before, and I admit to gakking past posts to write this one, but that and which apparently and continously remain a challenge to writers everywhere–and I don’t mean those of us who write professionally. The internet reminds me of this on a daily basis. It is one of my pet peeves, and something I am a stickler about seeking out and destroying.

The rule:
THAT is used with a restrictive clause, part of a sentence you can’t get rid of without changing the meaning, because it restricts some other part of the sentence. For example:

Mice that don’t like cheese will never fit in with mouse society.

It doesn’t matter whether or not this statement is true; what does matter is the that don’t like cheese cannot be taken out of the sentence without losing the meaning. It’s a restrictive clause. Without that clause, the sentence says that no mice will ever fit into mouse society. With the clause, it’s only those unfavorably disposed to cheese that won’t.

WHICH is used within a non-restrictive clause, part of a sentence that can be left out–not which can be left out–without changing the meaning. Non-restrictive clauses require a comma, or commas. It’s an easy indicator. Restrictive clauses don’t usually require commas.

The building, which stood on the corner of 1st and Grandview, was demolished during the Great Mouse Rebellion.

Which stood on the corner of 1st and Grandview is the non-restrictive clause. It is an added bit of information that can be removed without actually changing the meaning of the sentence. The building is demolished during the Great Mouse Rebellion. The clause is an aside, a bit of information that, while clarifying, isn’t necessary. And there is your biggest clue–if you can take out the clause without changing the general meaning of the sentence, use which.

The above is an example of a non-restrictive clause plonked down in the middle of a sentence. The ones tagged on to the end get a little trickier.

The building was demolished during the Great Mouse Rebellion, which was an unhappy event for anyone.


The building was demolished during the Great Mouse Rebellion that was an unhappy event for anyone.

Can you see the subtle–and some will say, totally irrelevant–difference? With the comma + which, the above sentence says that the destruction of the building was the unhappy event, while the second–taking out the comma and replacing which with that–it says that the Great Mouse Rebellion was the unhappy event.*

Does it matter? To some it won’t. To some, it will. There nevertheless is a difference in meaning. And that brings me to my last and, for me, most important point–that tends to be a filler word, a word we lean on when connecting thought to image, image to thought. I don’t like filler words, even though I overuse that like a champion. It is invisible to me while writing first draft, and the first search I do when starting revisions. Which is almost always an aside, and thus, telly. Not only is it telly, it’s author intrusion. You’re waving a flag for your reader, pulling them out of the action to give them information better given another way.

Like adverbs, that and which are necessary. They’re beneficial. They can do the job when called for; just be aware of how often you do the calling.

(*And before you argue that the first sentence could say both, in fact, it can’t. The building being destroyed is the event–during the Great Mouse Rebellion is a prep-phrase modifier. The clause goes to the former, not the latter. It’s like knowing 5 + 5 x 5 + 5 = 35. You have to know what goes with what–and that is what commas and such are for!)


Filed under Writing is Life

20 responses to “That and Which

  1. Eilzabeth Young

    Okay, I haven’t even read your whole post (I will, don’t worry, and I KNOW I’ll learn something) but I have to ask this question first….Should I – or you or anyone – really care about the distinction between that and which when skilled, well renowned and repeatedly published authors use ‘me’ instead of ‘I’??

    Liked by 1 person

    • Terri-Lynne DeFino

      Absolutely, Elizabeth. I, personally, would never use “me” instead of “I” in writing, but will often do so verbally. It is an evolution, really. Think about “whom.” It’s the same thing, and yet few people still use whom instead of who. It has been evolving out of the American English lexicon for about 150 years. The same will happen with this.


      • Eilzabeth Young

        Ohhh, I don’t ever exchange me and I verbally. It is just as wrong to my ear as it is in writing. But I have been known to get who/whom wrong.


    • Terri-Lynne DeFino

      I usually get around the “snooty” sounding, “She is a more stylish lady than I,” is to simply add the verb and it suddenly sounds just right. “She is a more stylish lady than I AM.” Silly, but it works.


  2. Lise-Marie

    Thanks, i leaned something which is very important important.


    • Terri-Lynne DeFino

      You learned something(,) which is very important? Or you learned something THAT is very important? 😉

      (need the comma if you’re using which.)


  3. It does matter…& drives me crazy! (Along with interchanging “that” and “who”.)


  4. Or, I could just get an editor to make it work and not weigh down my creative brain with such trivial matters. Hee, hee….okay, I know that’s not the “A” answer.


  5. Don’t have much to say on this one, Terri. Just wanted to let you know I read and enjoyed. 🙂


  6. Why won’t you starve in the desert?
    Because you can eat all that sand which is there (sandwiches there, get it?)
    Okay, I’m just glad I’m not close enough for you to slap me right now…..


  7. I was fine until you got to the “unhappy event” and then I got lost. I did see the difference in Lise-Marie’s “learn something” because the meaning is distinctly different. To my eyes, the Mouse Rebellion wasn’t. I’ll print out the first part of the lesson, and ignore the rest as I usually do. 😉


  8. Terri-Lynne DeFino

    Renee–ha! You’re too much. In the end, does it matter if the unhappy event was the building being destroyed, or the Rebellion itself? Probably not. But they technically say two different things. I’m just a word-nerd who loooooooooooooves to puzzle such things out!


  9. You know me, Terri. I’m a Brit. 😉 When I use ‘that’ it’s because it’s necessary & works. I treat the word in the same way I do an antibiotic. It’s rarely required & when I use it, it’s because it works. Otherwise, I have no use for it.

    I’m still confused about the mice… which ones rebelled? The cheese eaters or the other guys?



    • Terri-Lynne DeFino

      Hello, darling Carol!
      Yes, you Brits over-use which the way we Yanks over-use that. The thing is, though, whether British or American English, the “rule” is the same. From what I’ve read of Britsh literature, the British grammar has evolved out of the rule verbally, and now in writing as well.
      In this sentence:

      Mice that don’t like cheese will never fit in with mouse society.

      It’s saying that those mice eschweing cheese won’t fit in. In this sentence:
      Mice which don’t like cheese will never fit in with mouse society.
      It’s grammatically-by-the-rule wrong without the commas. So you put the commas in and what does it say?
      Mice, which don’t like cheese, will never fit in with mouse society.
      This is saying mice don’t like cheese, and none will never fit in with mouse society. Why? Because your non-restrictive clause comes out, which is the crux of telling the difference, (see what I did there? Hehee!) and what does it say?
      Mice will never fit in with mouse society.

      See? Now, another easy way to go about this would be to replace that with who.
      Mice who don’t like cheese will never fit in with mouse society.
      See? You’d never mistakenly put a which in there, would you? But we’re not supposed to give anything but humans the “who,” so unless one is reading Despareaux or one of the Brian Jacques books, that’s breaking yet another rule. 🙂

      Women who run with wolves howl the loudest. Now–I’m truly curious. Would you put “which” in place of the who?


  10. Pingback: Even An Editor Needs An Editor | Modesty Is For Suckers

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s