That vs. Which: When to Use Which vs. That (with Useful Examples)

That vs. which! If there’s one pair of words in the English language that causes even the most experienced writers to stop for a second and think about which is the correct word to use, then it’s that vs. which. Both these words can be used in many different contexts in a sentence but when one of the two is needed as a relative pronoun, a real nightmare can start. However, don’t start panicking: with that vs. which, there’s a perfectly logical explanation that will help you always use only the correct word.

That vs. Which

When it comes to using which or that as relative pronouns, you should be very careful about which choice you make. While both of them can be used when you’re talking about an inanimate object or an animal that doesn’t have a name, only “that” can be used when you’re talking about a human being.

But how to choose the correct word? Well, according to the American English rules, THAT should be used when you have a restrictive, or an essential clause, while WHICH should be used when the clause is nonrestrictive, or nonessential.

When to Use That

A restrictive clause is the one that you can’t just get rid of because it’s necessary to understand the meaning of the sentence. It makes the meaning more specific by narrowing a big category to a smaller one. For instance, in the sentence “All visitors that are underaged must be accompanied by their parents”, you can’t cross out the clause. If you do that, the sentence will read, “All visitors must be accompanied by their parents” and this simply wouldn’t make a lot of sense. So, because the clause is essential, you need to use that.

When to Use Which

In contrast, a nonrestrictive clause isn’t necessary. Sure, it gives some additional information but if you don’t use one, your readers will still be able to understand the sentence. For example, you can say, “My house, which is located in Texas, was built fifty years ago”. Even if you don’t specify that your house is in Texas, the meaning of the sentence stays the same. Therefore, the pronoun that you should use is which.

When to Use That vs. Which | Useful Tips

Note that a restrictive clause doesn’t need commas, while a nonrestrictive clause does. This is one more clue that will help you pick the correct word. These commas are very important because, depending on whether you have them or not, you can change the meaning of the sentence completely. For example, look at these two sentences:

  1. The long letter that I received yesterday came from New Zealand.
  2. The long letter, which I received yesterday, came from New Zealand.

When the reader sees the first sentence, he will assume that you have many long letters, so you need to specify that you received the one you’re talking about yesterday. It’s possible that a dozen other long letters found you the day before yesterday, last week or last month. This is why you can’t cross out the clause here.

In the second sentence, however, the fact that you received the letter yesterday doesn’t add any essential information. The reader understands that you have only one long letter, and the fact that you received it yesterday doesn’t change anything. If you cross out everything that is in between the commas, the sentence will still make sense.

As the Chicago Manual of Style teaches us, if you have a preposition and need a relative pronoun, you can only use which. For instance, if one of your friends graduated from a very well-known university, the correct way of telling everyone about it would be, “The university from WHICH he graduated is very well-known”.

If you still aren’t a 100% sure about the distinction between that vs. which, there’s no reason to worry because, in fact, these details are only really observed in American English. You’ll often see British writers using either which or that not depending on whether the clause is essential or nonessential but simply because they feel like it.

Still, if you want to follow all the rules, remember that you can throw all the “whiches” out without losing any of the meaning, while all the “thats” should stay in place. If you remember this, you’ll have no problem figuring out when to use each pronoun.

That vs. Which Examples

  • There are lots of things that I need to buy before the trip.
  • They’ve got a machine that prints names on badges.
  • They didn’t have the book that I wanted.
  • There’s the man that I saw yesterday.
  • The car was pulling a trailer, which carried a boat.
  • I saw him do his one-man show in London, which I loved.
  • They entered the shop, which was a curious ramshackle building.
  • The house, which was completed in 1856, was famous for its huge marble staircase.

Difference between Which vs. That | Picture

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That vs. Which: How to Use That vs. Which in Sentences

Last Updated on March 15, 2021

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