Using Which vs That

Instructor: Kerry Gray

Kerry has been a teacher and an administrator for more than twenty years. She has a Master of Education degree.

Whether you will use the word WHICH or THAT to introduce a clause depends on whether it is intended to be a restrictive or a non-restrictive clause. In this lesson, we will learn the difference between these clauses and discover how to use each word correctly.

Restrictive Vs. Non-restrictive Clauses

Did you know that the words 'which' and 'that' are not interchangeable? This mistake occurs so often in our language that many people are not even aware that there are rules governing the correct word usage. One of these words begins restrictive clauses while the other introduces non-restrictive clauses. Let's learn more about restrictive and non-restrictive clauses.

Using That

'That' introduces a restrictive clause. Restrictive clauses function as an adjective to provide limitations or focus that is necessary to the intended meaning of a sentence. No commas are needed when using restrictive clauses.

For example:

  • The package that is on the table belongs to Jaimie.

The restrictive clause 'that is on the table' implies that there is more than one package, but uses 'that' to delineate the one that is for Jaimie. Here is another example:

  • The bag that Zachary gave me is next to the front door.

The restrictive clause 'that Zachary gave me' indicates the difference between this bag and other bags, thereby providing focus for the reader or listener.

Did you see any commas in our sample sentences? When using restrictive clauses that are introduced with the word 'that', you will not use commas.

Using Which

'Which' introduces a non-restrictive clause. Non-restrictive clauses give extraneous information, which may be important but does not change the meaning of the sentence. If the non-restrictive clause were removed, the sentence would still mean the same thing. When using non-restrictive clauses, commas set aside the clause from the rest of the sentence.

For example:

  • The package, which is on the table, belongs to Jaimie.
  • The bag, which Zachary gave me, is next to the front door.

Using the non-restrictive clause beginning with 'which' and including commas changes the context of these sentences. For these examples, it is inferred that there is only one package and one bag. The author is using the non-restrictive clauses to provide a little more information about them.

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