Grammar Lesson: That vs. Which

Click on photo for source.

Click on photo for source.

I feel the need to refresh readers on why I cover grammar topics when the attitude of many novelists is that ‘an editor will fix it for me.’ Because really, there is some truth to that—an editor won’t catch everything, but an agent or publisher isn’t going to turn you away just because you have a few “whiches” that should be “thats” and visa versa.   However, understanding grammar allows a writer to break the rules more effectively, which is very different than ignoring them altogether. Persuant to the grammar message I started out with, the goal is to write with purpose not with indolence.

To begin with the topic in discussion, That vs. Which…it’s a common mistake that often gets ignored. Moreover, understanding the rule doesn’t mean it won’t be repeated as it’s an easy one to overlook. But with understanding comes improvement, so let’s dive in.

First, it’s important to recognize what each word (including the other main relative pronouns) refers to:

  • That (to include these and those) and Which refer to groups or things
  • Who refers to people
  • Where refers to a location, and understand that (for instance) New York could be EITHER a location or a group depending on how it’s used in the sentence (as in the difference between, “New York, the city that never sleeps” and “New York, where citizens never sleep”)
  • When refers to a point in time

Easy enough, right? What traps most people is when to use that and when to use which.

  • That introduces an essential clause to the sentence.
    Example:  “I do not like cars that are red.”
  • Which introduces a nonessential clause. HOWEVER, it can also be used to introduce the second essential clause in a sentence when that has already introduced the first essential clause.
    Example:  That is something which you will have to think about.

NOTE:  You can often leave out which in the latter case to streamline the sentence.

In summary, when deciding which relative pronoun to use, that or which, consider whether or not the clause is needed (you can’t get rid of it for the sentence to be a full sentence) or unneeded (you can drop it and still have a sentence). If it is needed, that is the choice. If not, go with which. 

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About authorphilpartington

Phil is a writing enthusiast of many years, having been published in numerous online and national print trade and sports publications over the past decade. He has spent the past five years delving back into the world of fiction writing, focussing on the fantasy, horror and suspense genres. Deshay of the Woods is his first novel.
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6 Responses to Grammar Lesson: That vs. Which

  1. Frank says:

    While I understand that ‘that’ is correct for an essential clause, I often want to use ‘which’ and Word’s grammar checker drives me a little nuts. So is it an absolute rule, or one of those English rules that are more honour’d in the breach than the observance?

    • In novel writing, Frank, I’ll rarely say something is an ‘absolute’ rule. Again, it’s about breaking rules with purpose. It is the rule as I understand it and in that sense it is correct. That said, perhaps its your strategy to use which for a reason…to unique-ify (I just made that word up :)) your narrative voice, or for some other purpose. Far be it from me to say it’s wrong. Just remember to consider why you might be deviating from the norm.

      Anyone else have any thoughts on this? It’s a damn good question that speaks to the heart of novel writing, I think.

      • Frank says:

        I’ve been thinking about how I use ‘which’, because, by and large, I do use ‘which’ and ‘that’ correctly, but…

        Take an example: She hands over a business card which Mrs Lane studies intently. Changing ‘which’ to ‘that’ changes the meaning. The ‘which’ is connecting two statements – two sequential actions in this case. Now technically, I suppose, there should be a comma in there; I just think it reads better without one. Commas slow the pace, and this is a non-essential comma.

      • Since “which Mrs. Lane studies intently” is nonessential to the sentence (meaning, the sentence can exist as a sentence without it) “which” is the correct choice. Regarding the comma, I don’t think commas always slow the pace as much as people think, but in this case it does no harm. Bottom line, while grammar is important, so long as the clarity is there, I wouldn’t overthink it too hard. What’s most important is capturing the audience. Stephen King said it best, I think. To paraphrase: “while grammar is important, it doesn’t always have to wear a suit and tie.”

        I think you’re fine there. 🙂

  2. Klaus Schilling says:

    No, I will not succumb to those rules. Already Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift used ‘which’ regularly for essential relative clauses; consequently, I will not be tricked by gramnar-d\fascist in to observing rules which require the contrary. The presence of the comma (or semicolon) is the true marker of inessential relative clauses, not the choice of the relative pronoun.

    • Swift and Defoe wrote in a different era, to a different audience. I would also take the guess that you are neither.

      Just sayin’

      To each his or her own, though. If you can be successful that way, then more power to you. I’ll argue to my grave that 99.9% of writers out there aren’t good enough to transcend this rules of thumb and won’t be successful unless they take them with strong consideration. I’d also argue that any who can be successful without adhering to these guidelines at least somewhat do so with an insane amount of luck. I mean, if Stephanie Meyer can be so successful, there’s always hope.

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