JS Tip 475: Using "That" and "Which"

From the Writing Workshops: Using “That” and “Which”

Marilyn Stevens asked if we would write a tip on using “that” versus “which.”

Our short answer is that it makes no difference. No difference. The words are interchangeable now.

Our long answer provides some background. 

There was a rule, a long time ago, that writers must use “that” with restrictive clauses (“need-to-know” information) and “which” with non-restrictive clauses (“nice-to-know” information).

(Remember this is background. The rule has faded. Gone away. Disappeared.)


Notice the difference between these two sentences:

1.   The boat that had a hole sank. 

2.   The boat, which had a hole, sank. 

    The first sentence addresses one boat of many. It identifies the particular boat that sank: the one with a hole in it. There were many boats in the marina that night, but the one with the hole went down. Blub blub. 

    That it had a hole restricts the boat (differentiates it, fences it off) from the others. This is need-to-know information. 

    The second sentence addresses one boat alone. If it had a hole, that’s nice-to-know information, but not critical. Not restrictive. 

    Restrictive and non-restrictive clauses are still out there (we'll talk about them next week), but the difference between “that” and “which” has disappeared.

    So don’t worry about it.

    Keep your questions coming. We love this stuff. 

    Mark Brooks