Which or That – Does it Matter?

As a continuation of the theme from last week on common word confusions, this one would probably top the chart. ‘That’ or ‘which’ has driven many writers crazy because of the similarity in meaning of these words. Not only that, but most of the confusion arises because it’s become widely accepted that they are interchangeable rather than grammatically incorrect, so the question is: does it really matter?
In the grand scheme of things, no, since their use has for many years become skewed by writers, and as already stated, either one is now accepted in literary circles and in British English, but for clarity and simplicity, there are differences between them and they do have different functions.
So what are these differences? First of all, both ‘Which’ and ‘that’ are pronouns.  We use pronouns to present a relative clause. A relative clause starts with the relative pronouns which, who, that, whose, when or where, and are often used to join two sentences. They are also used to identify the noun that precedes them, for example:
The walls are blue, which is not the right colour. (Blue is the noun)
Did you see the boy who climbed the tree? (Boy is the noun)
I need the screwdriver that I gave you a few moments ago. (Screwdriver is the noun)
We visited the glassblower, whose skills are amazing. (Glassblower is the noun)
That photo was taken when we went to the zoo. (Taken is a noun)
We went to the supermarket where I saw those shoes. (Supermarket is the noun)
‘Which’ refers to things/objects; however, ‘that’ refers to both things/objects and also refers to people, which is why it causes so much confusion, for example:
The shoes that she bought looked good.
The shoes, which she bought, looked good.
Both these samples look fine, and they’re both correct. But there is a difference between them, and that is because one is a restrictive clause and the other is non-restrictive.
Restrictive and Non-Restrictive Clauses
Both of the examples above are correct, however the use of ‘that’ in the first sentence introduces a restrictive clause. Restrictive clauses limit the meaning or nuance of sentences, hence the name. The restrictive clause reduces the first example to a simple statement, because ‘that’ is restrictive.
The second sentence contains ‘which’. This is known as a non-restrictive sentence. In other words, unlike ‘that’, the non-restrictive sentence provides a little more information, but it doesn’t limit the intended meaning of the sentence, but instead it alters the context slightly. The big difference between both examples is that in the non-restrictive use, ‘which’ is preceded with a comma (or enclosed by commas).
Let’s look again at the examples:
The shoes that she bought looked good.
The shoes, which she bought, looked good.
While these two sentences look almost identical, they’re different because the first example tells us that the woman brought some shoes – objects/things – and they looked good. It’s a statement; it’s restrictive.
The second example, which contains the non-restrictive clause, puts emphasis on the fact that she bought the shoes, so in a sense it provides more information, despite the fact that it’s more or less the same sentence. In other words, the context has changed.
If the clause is removed from the sentence, the meaning doesn’t actually change, just the context, so it simply has less information:
The shoes looked good.
Here’s another simple example, the kind of thing you’d find in any narrative. Notice the restrictive and non-restrictive clauses and the way they help the sentence meaning and change the context:
The books that she’d placed there earlier had gone.
The books, which she had placed there earlier, had gone.
Again, if we remove the both restrictive and non-restrictive elements, you’re left with a simple sentence:
The books had gone.
Writers spend a lot of time worrying over which word to use when they’re writing description, so knowing the differences between these two words makes things so much easier.
The examples below show how ‘that’ and ‘which’ should be used.
He opened his eyes to the shifting dusk that cloaked his tiny bedroom. (Restrictive clause)
Clouds swirled like thick, sulphur-tinted dust clouds that choked the sullen corridors in his mind. (Restrictive clause)
Every day they piled them onto waiting carts, which were then transported to area outside town, known as the Death Fields. (Non-restrictive clause)
She tied string around a muslin cloth, which enclosed some cheese, bread and smoked meat for their lunch. (Non-restrictive clause)
Once writers understand ‘that’ and ‘which’ better, there shouldn’t be any confusion over which one to use, or when.
Next week: Run-on Sentences – Acceptable or not?


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