Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

That or which?

with 9 comments

w:en:This Is the House That Jack Built - illus...
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Here’s the standard definition:

‘That’ defines and ‘which’ informs (or tells us something). Got it?

No, nor me.

Well, try this for size:

This is the house that Jack built.

The house around the corner, which his brother built, is being demolished.

In the first sentence the word ‘that’ is used to distinguish the house that Jack built from any other house.

In the second sentence the word ‘which’ is used to provide some additional information. This additional information could be taken out and the rest of the sentence would still make sense:

The house around the corner is being demolished.

So as a general rule, use ‘which’ when you are providing some additional information for the reader. This will often be as part of a clause within commas (e.g. ‘which his brother built’) and can be removed without harming the rest of the sentence.

For example:

This is the book that Dickens wrote.

But:

The book, which Dickens wrote, is now a classic.

However, don’t beat yourself up about this one. In all but the most formal writing ‘that’ and ‘which’ seem to be used interchangeably without too much of a rumpus being caused. And you can usually tell if what you’ve written ‘sounds’ right or not. For example, you would never write:

The car which you crashed, that was the latest model, was almost brand new.

The correct version is, of course:

The car that you crashed, which was the latest model, was almost brand new.

Find out more about commonly confused words

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9 Responses

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  1. So nice , I will definitely keep this in mind . you have so nicely explained the use with examples that makes the thought and meaning very clear.

    sunil balani

    19/01/2010 at 4:07 pm

    • Thanks, Sunil. I try to make things as clear as I can and any suggestions for improvements are always welcome!

      Deborah

      19/01/2010 at 4:13 pm

  2. Nice! If you make an effort to use “that” when it fits–to describe, identify, or limit something–your writing will be much less flabby. Because “which” clauses reflect a diversion or commentary on the main topic, you’re drawn off the point as soon as you start to use “which” in place of “that.”

    Michael Farrell

    20/01/2010 at 4:47 am

    • Thanks for that additional clarification, Michael: a very useful extra guideline.

      Deborah

      20/01/2010 at 7:23 am

  3. USE THE WORD (w)HICH, WHEN THE SENTENCE COULD STAND ALONE (w)ITHOUT IT!

    USE THE WORD (t)HAT, WHEN THE WORD NEEDS TO BE (t)HERE!

    NOTICE THE ALLITERATION!

    MELISS

    22/02/2010 at 12:23 am

  4. Hi, Meliss — welcome to my blog!

    That’s a brilliant tip. I wish I’d thought of it myself. Thanks very much for sharing it!

    Deborah

    22/02/2010 at 3:32 am

  5. You’re right when you say “don’t beat yourself up”.

    Perfect English is all well and good – in its place. Mostly, though, close enough just flows more smoothly particularly in the relatively informal environment of a blog. Which doesn’t mean you throw all the rules out of the window, as some (too many?), bloggers do. (Yep, I know it’s “as do some bloggers” – I also know which will sit better with all but the terminally picky.)

    Ron

    19/07/2010 at 7:56 pm

  6. Hi, Ron — ‘As some bloggers do’ is good enough for me too. As you rightly say, grammar doesn’t have to be perfect all of the time (and there’s usually disagreement about what’s ‘perfect’ anyway) especially when writing informally.

    Deborah

    19/07/2010 at 8:04 pm

  7. A good explanation of ‘that’ and ‘which’ from the Guardian, plus interesting comments from readers including disagreement with the rule.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/mind-your-language/2011/oct/17/mind-your-language-that-which

    Deborah

    03/03/2012 at 5:34 pm


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