Knowing when to use the word “that” versus the word “which” is one of the most common conundrums in the English language. At first glance, these terms might seem interchangeable, but this is not always the case.
The most important rule to remember is that “that” should be used before a restrictive clause. “Which” should be used before non-restrictive clauses. To put it even more simply, you should use “that” in situations where removing the terms that follow the word would change the meaning of the sentence. If removing the words following the term would not change the entire message of the sentence, stick with “which.”
If you’re having a hard time deciding which clauses are restrictive and which ones are non-restrictive, keep in mind that restrictive clauses are not normally set off by commas. Conversely, most non-restrictive clauses will have a comma both before and after.
These rules might sound a bit confusing, but they are pretty easy to implement when you compare two real sentences. Let’s take a look at these two examples to see the difference between that and which.
- The red package, which contained her Christmas present, was beautiful.
- The red package that has a handwritten tag is for you.
In the first sentence, “which” is the right choice. Even if you removed the clause, “which contained her Christmas present.” The sentence still conveys the meaning that the red package was beautiful.
On the other hand, the second sentence wouldn’t carry the same meaning if the phrase “that has a handwritten tag” is removed. In this case, the reader wouldn’t know which red package was for her. Since the clause is restrictive, “that” is the right choice.