Grammar! That vs. Which

The words “which” and “that” have a long and tangled history together. I’d guess that most native English-speakers don’t recognize a difference between the words in most sentences.

For example:

The spaceship that looked like a tulip crashed into my swimming pool.

The spaceship which looked like a tulip crashed into my swimming pool.

Most native English-speakers wouldn’t bat an eye at either of those sentences, figuring that they mean basically the same thing.

And to be perfectly honest, just as most readers see them the same, so do most writers. So I wouldn’t recommend worrying about it very much in your everyday life.

So why should you care? Well…

Some readers do see a difference. So if you’re a writer, you should know that those readers will say that the second sentence is just wrong.

When these readers see the second sentence, they instantly stop thinking about whatever you’re writing about and start thinking about poor grammar and the lamentable state of the education system.

In other words, it might make sense to get it right.

[By the way, some guides mention that this distinction is practically eradicated in Britain. I recently read a British novel that used “which” instead of “that” in every instance. To my immense surprise, it actually started to annoy me.]

So how do you get it right? The short and slightly simplified answer is:

Use “that” when the phrase must remain in the sentence. Use “which,” with commas, when it could be left out.

What do I mean? Let’s go back to the examples above.

Here’s how a paragraph might lead up to statement number one (the “that” statement):

The fleet of 10,000 flower-shaped spaceships arrived in a blinding flash of color. Each ship looked like a different flower. And then something happened. The spaceship that looked like a tulip crashed into my swimming pool.

The point of the sentence is that a very particular spaceship did something. The question of the ship’s shape is an important one.

If you took out “that looked like a tulip,” you’d be left with:

The spaceship crashed into my swimming pool.

And people would ask, “which spaceship?” Then they’ll say, “you said that there were 10,000 ships, so you have to be more specific than just saying “the spaceship” without telling us which one you mean.”

That is definitely what they’d say.

Now here’s a paragraph containing a “which” phrase:

The fleet of 10,000 flower-shaped ships arrived in a blinding flash of color. Suddenly, a spaceship spun wildly out of control. The spaceship, which looked like a tulip, crashed into my swimming pool.

In this case, you could safely remove the phrase in question. We’ve already introduced and specified the ship in question, so the bit about the shape is just confection.

In short, disposable stuff gets commas and a “which.” Essential stuff gets a “that.”

Is this making sense? Should we stop worrying about this distinction?

Tags:

8 Responses to “Grammar! That vs. Which”

  1. JaniceG
    March 7, 2011 at 9:11 pm #

    I believe that using “which” and “that” to indicate a distinction between dependent and independent clauses is still useful. The easiest example of this distinction that I’ve seen is as follows:

    “I like mysteries, which are suspenseful”

    I like mysteries and a quality of mysteries is that they are suspenseful. Removing the mention of the fact that mysteries are suspenseful does not change the main thought, which is my liking of mysteries.

    “I like mysteries that are suspenseful”

    I like only mysteries that have the quality of being suspenseful, and not other kinds of mysteries. Removing the mention of the suspenseful quality changes the meaning of the sentence.

  2. Heather
    March 7, 2011 at 9:42 pm #

    Super fantastique.

  3. mustafa
    October 10, 2011 at 10:24 am #

    helped me in my exams

  4. admin-Robert
    October 10, 2011 at 6:04 pm #

    Glad to hear this was helpful (and super fantastique!).

  5. Richard
    November 23, 2011 at 5:19 am #

    Poor example in your introduction. The only thing wrong with “The spaceship which looked like a tulip crashed into my swimming pool.” is the failure to bracket the independent clause with commas. It could alternatively be written: “The spaceship crashed into the swimming pool. Incidentally, it happened to be shaped like a tulip.” It is only when you know that spaceships look like different flowers (when read in context) that the error you identify becomes apparent.

    I’m sure I’ll get shot down in flames over my own errors in this post. I’m comfortable with that. I’m not the one writing a blog on grammar.

    • JaniceG
      November 29, 2011 at 2:53 am #

      “It is only when you know that spaceships look like different flowers (when read in context) that the error you identify becomes apparent.”

      Um, you answer your own objection here: indeed, the dependent clause is only necessary if you need to distinguish between spaceships of different flower shapes. If the sentence includes an independent clause beginning with “which,” then the distinction between spaceship shapes isn’t crucial. If the dependent clause beginning with “that” is used, then the distinction is not required. You know from the clause whether it’s an important distinction.

  6. admin-Robert
    November 25, 2011 at 2:25 pm #

    Wow, Richard, you seem upset.

    You’re right that the error (at least, in the U.S.) is that it has missing commas. That’s why I said that the way to do it correctly is:

    Use “that” when the phrase must remain in the sentence. Use “which,” with commas, when it could be left out.

    Thanks for your comment.

Leave a Reply

Subscribe without commenting