Dina Friedman's Monthly Writing Advice

Vol. 1 # 12, June 2002 - That vs. Which

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THIS MONTH'S TIP: That vs. Which

Dear Dina,

Could you please illuminate the difference between "that" and "which" I always thought they were interchangeable.

Disgusted Over Small Picky Matters With Words

Dear Disgusted,

Since so many people use "that" and "which" interchangeably, it's no wonder that you're confused. According to the official grammatical rule, the word "that" is used in a restrictive clause, and the word "which" is used in a non-restrictive clause.

Example: Here is the book that I borrowed from you.

The words "that I borrowed from you" help define the specific book being referred to. That is, I'm asking you to return the specific book that you borrowed from me, not any book of your choosing. Suppose I said,

Here is the book, which was extremely boring.

The information about boredom is extra, and not necessary to define the book. However, if I had several books on the table and you said, "Give me the boring book." Then I would say,

Here is the book that is boring.

I use the word "that" to define the boring book you wanted. Why you wanted a boring book is for you to answer.

Please note that there is always a comma before the word "which" because the words that follow are extra, rather than essential to the meaning of the sentence. The word "that" does not have a comma preceding it because the words are essential to the sentence's meaning.

Ultimately some professional writers never totally understand this difference, so take heart if you still make an occasional error. I've spotted them in many printed pages, including The New York Times.





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Dina Friedman, M.S.W., has worked with individuals and groups on issues for thirteen years. A published fiction writer, poet, playwright, and journalist and winner of several awards and honors, she coordinates academic writing workshops for Mount Holyoke College. She has taught rhetoric, English Comp, and creative writing at the University of Massachusetts, Holyoke Community College, and the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.

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