Have you ever been stuck trying to decide whether to use which or that? While both pronouns can be used in other constructions, the confusion usually arises when they are being used as relative pronouns to introduce adjective (or relative) clauses. In the examples below, we have bracketed the adjective clauses. (Remember that a clause is simply a group of words containing a subject and a verb.):
- Our house [that has a red door and green shutters] needs painting.
- Our house, [which has a red door and green shutters], needs painting.
- The classrooms [that were painted over the summer] are bright and cheerful.
- The classrooms, [which were painted over the summer], are bright and cheerful.
In all four cases, the adjective clause tells us something about either the house or the classrooms, but the choice of which or that changes the meaning of each sentence.
How They Differ in Meaning
In the first sentence, the use of that suggests that we own more than one house and therefore must explain to you that we are talking about a particular house of ours—the one with a red door and green shutters. We cannot leave out that adjective clause because it is essential to your understanding of the sentence; that is, you wouldn’t know which one of our houses needs the paint job without that clause, without that information.
The second sentence tells you that we own only one house and we are simply telling you—in case you want to know—that it happens to have a red door and green shutters. We could leave out the information in that adjective clause and the sentence would still make sense.
The third sentence, because it uses that to launch its adjective clause, tells us that only SOME of the classrooms were painted over the summer. If we omitted the clause “that were painted over the summer,” we would be left with “The classrooms are bright and cheerful,” a statement that would not be accurate since it would imply that ALL the classrooms are bright and cheerful. In this sentence, therefore, the adjective clause is essential to the meaning of the sentence.
That Clauses Are Restrictive/Essential
We call the adjective clauses in sentences one and three essential or restrictive because they restrict—or limit—the meaning of the nouns they modify. In the case of sentence three, they tell us that we are talking ONLY about the classrooms that were painted over the summer—not the others.
Which Clauses Are Nonrestrictive/Nonessential
The which clause in the fourth sentence is what we call a nonessential—or nonrestrictive—clause. Since that sentence intends to tell us that ALL the classrooms were painted, the information in the adjective clause is not essential. That is, the sentence would be clear even if the clause were omitted.
The rule of thumb, then, is that which clauses are nonrestrictive (nonessential) while that clauses are restrictive (essential).
And They Need Commas
Nonrestrictive clauses and phrases are set off from the rest of a sentence by a pair of commas (as in our examples above) or by a single comma if they come at the end of the sentence. (Example: “I took a vacation day on my birthday, which happened to fall on a Monday this year.”)
Not Everyone Understands
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, regarded by most writers as the authority on such matters, tells us that it is now common for which to be used with either kind of clause, while that must be used only for restrictive clauses. In fact, though, careful writers continue to make the distinction described above.
This Distinction Is Important in Legal Contexts
Attorneys are taught to use which for nonrestrictive clauses and that for restrictive clauses so as not to cause a misreading in legal documents. It seems just as important that we work to avoid misreadings in all writing, not only in situations when a legal ruling might be at stake.
We Have Other Relative Pronouns, Too
Remember that we should use who and whom instead of which or that in reference to people (and animals with names, such as pets):
- These are the students who [NOT that] just finished their exams.
- Everyone who [NOT that] came to my house for dinner brought food to share.
- The technician whom [not that] I called this morning was at my house by noon.
But just as we have to consider whether relative clauses are essential (restrictive) or nonessential (nonrestrictive) when deciding between which and that, we have to ask ourselves the same question when deciding how to punctuate clauses that begin with other relative pronouns, including who, whom, and whose.
Consider this sentence, for example:
His speech seemed clearly aimed at White suburbanites who are not sympathetic to the Black Lives Matter movement.
If all White suburbanites were unsympathetic (illogical, of course), then the information in the relative clause would be nonessential (nonrestrictive) and we would need a comma.
Sometimes It’s Not Enough Simply to Be Correct
To avoid any possible misreading of this sentence, for example, the writer might have said, “His speech seemed clearly aimed at the subset of White suburbanites who are not sympathetic to the Black Lives Matter movement” or, more succinctly, “. . . aimed at those White suburbanites . . . .”
Which pronoun—which or that—belongs in each blank below?
- Carlos gave Maria a study guide for material ________ was going to be on the test.
- Carlos gave Maria notes from chapters 3 through 7 _________ were going to be on the test.
- Mark and Sarah took their children on every vacation _________ they took to the coast.
- The teachers gave awards to all paintings ________ showed originality.
- Carlos gave Maria a study guide for material that was going to be on the test. [To say simply “Carlos gave Maria a study guide for material” would not be complete information. We need the adjective clause to tell us which material, in particular. Since the information is, therefore, essential, we use that and no comma.]
- Carlos gave Maria notes from chapters 3 through 7, which were going to be on the test. [The fact that chapters 3 through 7 were going to be on the test is not essential to our understanding exactly which notes Carlos gave Maria, so we use a comma and which.]
- Mark and Sarah took their children on every vacation that they took to the coast. [If we said simply “Mark and Sarah took their children on every vacation,” we would be inaccurate. The information in the adjective clause is essential to our understanding that the children went on certain vacations and not others. Therefore, we use that and no comma.]
- The teachers gave awards to all paintings that showed originality. [To say simply “The teachers gave awards to all paintings” would be inaccurate. The information in the adjective clause is, therefore, essential to the meaning of the sentence, so we use that and no comma.]
©2000 Get It Write. Revised 2020.