“Which” vs. “That”: Are you using them right?

The house that has a big backyard is up for sale.

The house, which has a big backyard, is up for sale.

Are both the sentences telling us the same thing?

You may say, “Yes”. A big backyard will definitely make the house a quick sale! But that’s not the point here.

If you look closely at the words which and that, you might notice that the two sentences are not quite saying the same thing.

So what is the difference? Let’s find out.

Which or that? That or which?

These two words are a headscratcher for most of us. They endorse the fact that commonly used words are not necessarily easy to use.

But what if I told you that these two words can be untangled after all?

Just look for the clause.

I know that Christmas is not around the corner, but finding this clause shouldn’t be a problem.

Let’s look at our example: The house that has a big backyard is up for sale.

This sentence implies that the person has more than one house in mind, and that he/she is talking about a particular house—one that has a big backyard. Here, the clause that has a big backyard is a restrictive clause. It is providing us an essential characteristic of the house, which sets it apart from the other houses. Without this clause, we will not understand which house the person is talking about.

That is used for restrictive clauses.

Here are more examples:

  • Dogs that are abandoned by their owners are adopted by shelter homes.
  • The therapy that the doctor recommended worked well for my father.

On the other hand, a clause that provides nonessential information about the noun is a nonrestrictive clause. In most cases, these clauses are set off with commas.

Which is used for nonrestrictive clauses.

Now, let’s go back to the same example: The house, which has a big backyard, is up for sale.

From this sentence, we understand that the person is just providing extra information through the nonrestrictive clause which has a big backyard. It is useful, but not necessary. Drop this clause, and the sentence would still mean the same in context.

Here are more examples:

  • The unexpected package, which had no name, contained brand new shoes.
  • His version of the story, which I found convincing, was discredited by the jury.

American vs. British English

Which and that are used differently in American and British English. The distinction between which and that, as explained above, holds importance in American English. However, people who use British English commonly use which for both, restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses. So, while using British English, you might not need to be careful with these words, but it is always useful to know the difference in the ideas they convey.

Tip to remember the difference

Again, I would say—Look for the clause!

If the clause talks about something essential, use that.

If not, go for which.

Once you practice identifying the clauses correctly, using which and that at the right place would be a five-finger exercise!

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