Writing Forums

Writing Forums is a privately-owned, community managed writing environment. We provide an unlimited opportunity for writers and poets of all abilities, to share their work and communicate with other writers and creative artists. We offer an experience that is safe, welcoming and friendly, regardless of your level of participation, knowledge or skill. There are several opportunities for writers to exchange tips, engage in discussions about techniques, and grow in your craft. You can also participate in forum competitions that are exciting and helpful in building your skill level. There's so much more for you to explore!

Which vs That? (1 Viewer)

Uriah

Senior Member
Grmmatically speaking, is it wrong to use 'which' instead of 'that' in the following context:

The man held a knife which gleamed menacingly in the firelight.

The road which we were on was becomming more rocky and impassable.


????

Is there any general rule about this? I ask because, I really don't like 'that'. It sounds clunky often times, and I just plain don't like the way it sounds. But is it grammatically correct to use 'that' over 'which', or what?

Thanks
 

valeca

Patron
I'll take the second one and leave the first for someone else.

The sentence is stronger without 'that' or 'which'.

The road we were on was becoming more rocky and impassable.

(also removed one 'm' from becoming)
 

Azmakna

Senior Member
Which or That?
While both which and that can be used in other constructions, the confusion usually arises when they are being used as relative pronouns to introduce adjective (or relative) clauses. In the examples below, we have bracketed the adjective clauses. (Remember that a clause is simply a group of words containing a subject and a verb):
1. Our house [that has a red door and green shutters] needs painting.
2. Our house, [which has a red door and green shutters], needs painting.
3. The classrooms [that were painted over the summer] are bright and cheerful.
4. The classrooms, [which were painted over the summer], are bright and cheerful.
In all four cases, the adjective clause tells us something about either the house or the classrooms, but the choice of which or that changes the way we should read each sentence.
In the first sentence, the use of that suggests that we own more than one house and therefore must explain to you that we are talking about a particular house of ours--the one with a red door and green shutters. We cannot leave out that adjective clause because it is essential to your understanding of the sentence; that is, you wouldn't know which one of our houses needs the paint job without that adjective clause.
The second sentence tells you that we own only one house and we are simply telling you--in case you want to know--that it happens to have a red door and green shutters. We could leave out the information in that adjective clause and the sentence would still make sense.
The third sentence, because it uses that to launch its adjective clause, tells us that only SOME of the classrooms were painted over the summer. If we omitted the clause "that were painted over the summer," we would be left with "The classrooms are bright and cheerful," a statement that would not be accurate since it would imply that ALL the classrooms are bright and cheerful. In this sentence, therefore, the adjective clause is essential to the meaning of the sentence.
We call the adjective clauses in sentences one and three restrictive
The which clause in the fourth sentence is what we call a nonessential--or nonrestrictive--clause. Since that sentence intends to tell us that ALL the classrooms were painted, the information in the adjective clause is not essential. The sentence would be clear even if the clause were omitted.
The rule of thumb, then, is that which clauses are nonrestrictive (nonessential) while that clauses are restrictive (essential). Nonrestrictive clauses and phrases are set off from the rest of a sentence by a pair of commas (as in our examples above) or by a single comma if they come at the end of the sentence. (Example: "I took a vacation day on my birthday, which happened to fall on a Monday this year.")
Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (10th edition), regarded by most writers as the authority on such matters, tells us that it is now common for which to be used with either kind of clause, while that must be used only for restrictive clauses. In fact, though, careful writers continue to make the distinction we describe above. Attorneys are taught to use which for nonrestrictive clauses and that for restrictive clauses so as not to cause a misreading in legal documents. It seems just as important that we work to avoid misreadings in all writing, not only in situations when a legal ruling might be at stake.
TEST YOURSELF: Which pronoun--which or that--belongs in each blank below?
1. Carlos gave Maria a study guide for material ________ was going to be on the test.
2. Carlos gave Maria notes from chapters 3 through 7 _________ were going to be on the test.
3. Mark and Sarah took their children on every vacation _________ they took to the coast.
4. The teachers gave awards to all paintings ________ showed originality.
ANSWERS
1.Carlos gave Maria a study guide for material *that* was going to be on the test. [To say simply "Carlos gave Maria a study guide for material" would not be complete information. We need the adjective clause to tell us which material, in particular. Since the information is, therefore, essential, we use that and no comma.]
2.Carlos gave Maria notes from chapters 3 through 7, *which* were going to be on the test. [The fact that chapters 3 through 7 were going to be on the test is not essential to our understanding exactly which notes Carlos gave Maria, so we use a comma and which.]
3.Mark and Sarah took their children on every vacation *that* they took to the coast. [If we said simply "Mark and Sarah took their children on every vacation," we would be inaccurate. The information in the adjective clause is essential to our understanding that the children went on certain vacations and not others. Therefore, we use that and no comma.]
4.The teachers gave awards to all paintings that showed originality. [To say simply "The teachers gave awards to all paintings" would be inaccurate. The information in the adjective clause is, therefore, essential to the meaning of the sentence, so we use that and no comma.]
because they restrict--or limit--the meaning of the nouns they modify. In the case of sentence three, they tell us that we are talking ONLY about the classrooms that were painted over the summer--not the others.
 

Seppuku05

Member
The man held a knife which gleamed menacingly in the firelight

I'd probably use a comma there 'The man held a knife, which gleamed menacingly in the firelight' - but I find both sides are too connected - so in my mind, 'that' would be used - but truthfully speaking I don't specifically know much 'grammar' rule specifically, I just go on what looks right and whats sounds right, I won't be able to say " 'that' is used in x situation and 'which' is used in y situation" - perhaps the guy who posted above has done that. ;)
 

Uriah

Senior Member
Thanks for the help guys!

Azmakna, that is exactly the info I was looking for. Thanks again!
 

mammamaia

Senior Member
nailed it all!... admirable job, az!!!

for the record:

The man held a knife, which gleamed menacingly in the firelight.

The road which [doesn't belong there for best writing, but if you can't bear to delete it, needs comma before it and another after 'on' to make it grammatical] we were on was becomming more rocky and impassable.
 
Last edited:

HarryG

Senior Member
Azmakna explained it properly, and the comma before which is correct too. The grammar check in Word helps sometimes although it often merely exchanges which with that for no reason.


There is also a slight difference between American and English common usage, with the English favouring which, more than that. Ultra modern writing, the young stuff, doesn't care for the scientific difference and that's the way we're all going. OK?
 

dwspig2

Member
An excerpt from an editorial I wrote in our school newspaper:

. . . A third and final bastardization of the English language that I cannot stand is the incorrect usage of which in all its forms. Some people seem to think that which is a coordinating conjunction of the same class as and, or, but, for, and so. It is not and never will be unless some big shot at MLA or in Oxford recognizes that English language speakers have so botched up the language that we must accept it as such. It will be a sad, sad day if that situation ever comes to pass. Which is a relative pronoun that sometimes begins a clause - a part of the sentence with a subject and verb - that is subordinate to another clause: an independent clause. This fact simply means that which, as a relative pronoun, must precede a group of words that has both a subject and a verb, and oftentimes which can even act as the subject of its own clause. Furthermore, which is nonrestrictive. In other words, if you use which, you must set it off with commas. If you don’t want to use a comma, you’re going to have to use the relative pronoun that instead. It’s really simple. I hope you understand this idea that I’m trying to convey in this article, which is not entirely about the word which. . . .
 

Non Serviam

WF Veterans
Care needs to be taken with this, because it does vary by dialect -- specifically, American English tends to prefer "that" in places where the rest of the English-speaking world would quite naturally use "which".

Writers in Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and other countries that don't use the American dialect should generally assume the rules suggested above don't apply to them.
 

mammamaia

Senior Member
whether you're brit or yank, strunk & white have the definitive say on the that vs which debate, imo-- check out page 59 for the skinny on which one you should use when--
 

dwspig2

Member
Regardless if you're British or American, which is restrictive and and that is nonrestrictive. Restrictive construction requires a comma and non-restrictive does not allow it - generally speaking. The instances in which a restrictive or non-restrictive pronoun is used may differ from dialect to dialect, but the basics of the grammar does not.
 

Non Serviam

WF Veterans
With all due respect for the previous poster's view on prescriptive grammar, I'm afraid that this sentence is perfectly grammatical English which does not require a comma.

Except, perhaps, in American usage, where I'll defer to the native speakers of that dialect.
 
A

Adzaaahhh

Regardless if you're British or American, which is restrictive and and that is nonrestrictive.
Methinks you may have that back to front Sir! I.e. that = restrictive; which = nonrestrictive.
 

caelum

Astronomer
Senior Member
That post is more than three years old. I doubt the guy will see your response.

It seems a lot of people on the first page simply made up answers, until about half way down. The way I understand it, "which" describes, "that" distinguishes. I don't see how that varies by dialect.

For example, "I grabbed the apple which was green," means you grabbed a green apple with no reference to any other apples. "I grabbed the apple that was green," means you picked the green apple from a selection of apples, the others of which were not green.
 
Top