Knowing when to use ‘that’ and when to use ‘which’ is a tricky business. Use this helpful rule to find your way.
When To Use ‘That’ And When To Use ‘Which’
Rule of thumb
The best way to explain the rule is to use an example. Look at these two sentences:
- Our office, which is in Cape Town, is eco-friendly.
- Our office that is in Cape Town is eco-friendly.
Which. In the first sentence, we have one office that is eco-friendly. It happens to be in Cape Town. The part of the sentence that says ‘which is in Cape Town’ is additional information. It’s called a non-restrictive clause. Because it doesn’t restrict the rest of the sentence, removing it won’t change the basic meaning of the sentence, which is that our only office is eco-friendly.
That. Changing ‘which’ to ‘that’ in the second sentence changes the meaning of the sentence. Now, we have more than one office. One of our offices is eco-friendly. To identify which one it is, I tell you that it’s the one in Cape Town that’s eco-friendly, implying that the other offices aren’t. The part of the sentence that says ‘that is in Cape Town’ is not additional information. It’s specific, identifying information. This specific, identifying information is called a restrictive clause. Because it restricts the rest of the sentence, removing this information would change the meaning of the sentence. You wouldn’t know to which office I’m referring.
- A water leak has damaged our reception area that was redecorated in December.
- A water leak has damaged our reception area, which was redecorated in December.
The company that haggled over its contract with our company the most is now our biggest client.
The company, which haggled over its contract with our company the most, is now our biggest client.
The correct answer: sentence 1. The words ‘the most’ tell you that there are other clients that have also haggled over the contract. The restrictive clause beginning with ‘that’ provides specific, identifying information, so that you know which client is being discussed.
Punctuating all this
When you use a non-restrictive clause with the word ‘which’, you set that part of the sentence off between commas, like this:
The contract, (comma) which states that late delivery will be fined, (comma) will be signed today.
When you use a restrictive clause with the word ‘that’, you don’t need any commas:
The contract that states that late delivery will be fined will be signed today.
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