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
Could you please illuminate the difference between "that" and
"which" I always thought they were interchangeable.
Disgusted Over Small Picky Matters With Words
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
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
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published fiction writer, poet, playwright, and journalist
and winner of several awards and honors, she coordinates
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has taught rhetoric, English Comp, and creative writing at
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