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That vs. Which

that vs which

To understand when to use that vs. which, it’s important to keep in mind the difference between and restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses. In formal American English, that is used in restrictive clauses, and which in used in nonrestrictive clauses.

A restrictive clause contains information that limits the meaning of the thing being talked about. For example, in the sentence “Any book that you like must be good,” the relative clause “that you like” is restrictive because it identifies specifically a book that you like. Note that in restrictive clauses, sometimes that can be omitted. “Any book you like must be good” is also often used, especially in informal settings.

A nonrestrictive clause, on the other hand, is used to supply additional information that is not essential to understanding the main point of the sentence. Consider the example “The book, which I found at a dusty used bookstore, was a real page-turner.” The relative clause “which I found at a dusty used bookstore” is nonrestrictive because it adds extra information, almost like an aside. You could delete the details about the bookstore, and the sentence would still make sense. In this example, which is preceded by a comma; nonrestrictive clauses tend to follow punctuation like a comma, a dash, or parenthesis. Which is only used in restrictive clauses if it’s preceded by a preposition.

Luckily there’s an easy way to remember whether to use that or which. If the relative clause contains information that is not essential to the meaning of the sentence, and is also preceded by a comma, a dash, or parenthesis, it’s probably nonrestrictive, so use which. If not, odds are it’s restrictive, so use that.

However, the above distinction is a rule of formal American English, and is not as strictly observed in British English or in informal English of any type.

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110 Comments

  1. Jonathan -  June 12, 2015 - 1:25 pm

    I’LL MARRY YOU GIRL! Just kidding haha :)

    Reply
    • Khim -  June 20, 2015 - 3:41 am

      I bet it’s half meant! :)

      Reply
  2. chocolate -  May 29, 2015 - 12:10 pm

    LUV CHOCOLATE!!!!!!!!!

    Reply
    • chocolate -  May 29, 2015 - 12:11 pm

      do you?

      Reply
      • chocolate -  June 9, 2015 - 4:01 pm

        Yes I do baby

        Reply
  3. Lenny -  May 26, 2015 - 6:43 am

    ( ͡°͜ ʖ ͡°)

    Reply
    • Lenny -  May 26, 2015 - 6:44 am

      ( ͡°͜ ʖ ͡°)

      Reply
      • Lenny -  May 26, 2015 - 6:45 am

        ( ͡°͜ ʖ ͡°)

        Reply
        • Lenny -  May 26, 2015 - 6:58 am

          ( ͡°͜ ʖ ͡°)!

          Reply
          • Lenny -  May 26, 2015 - 6:59 am

            ( ͡°͜ ʖ ͡°) Much Lenny

      • Lenny -  May 26, 2015 - 6:50 am

        ( ͡°.͜ ʖ ͡°)

        Reply
        • Lenny -  May 26, 2015 - 7:01 am

          ʖ ͡°) Stalking you

          Reply
          • Lenny -  May 26, 2015 - 7:01 am

            ( ͡°͜ ʖ ͡°)

      • Lenny -  May 26, 2015 - 6:51 am

        ( ͡°͜ .ʖ ͡°)

        Reply
        • Lenny -  May 26, 2015 - 6:56 am

          ( ͡°͜ ʖ ͡°).

          Reply
          • Lenny -  May 26, 2015 - 6:58 am

            ( ͡°͜ ʖ ͡°) Such Lenny

          • emmer -  June 11, 2015 - 2:27 am

            :-)

    • Lenny -  May 26, 2015 - 6:54 am

      .( ͡°͜ ʖ ͡°)

      Reply
      • Lenny -  May 26, 2015 - 7:02 am

        ( ͡°͜ ʖ ͡°) Lel

        Reply
        • Lenny -  May 26, 2015 - 7:05 am

          ( ͡°͜ ʖ ͡°) Topkek

          Reply
          • Lenny -  May 26, 2015 - 7:06 am

            ( ͡°͜ ʖ ͡°) Such line

    • Lenny -  May 26, 2015 - 6:55 am

      ( ͡°͜ ʖ ͡°) Kek

      Reply
      • Lenny -  May 26, 2015 - 7:11 am

        ( ͡°͜ ʖ ͡°) End of Line

        Reply
  4. girl -  May 20, 2015 - 3:42 pm

    who wants to marry me???????????????

    Reply
    • Miguel -  June 9, 2015 - 2:49 pm

      I feel like it’s not a girl or she’s despret

      Reply
      • Lauren -  July 23, 2015 - 10:41 am

        Desparate * HAHAHA DESPRET

        Reply
        • Dictionary.com? -  December 3, 2015 - 4:02 pm

          desperate

          Reply
    • Anon -  June 9, 2015 - 9:58 pm

      With grammar that bad, I shall pass.

      Reply
  5. Thomas -  May 19, 2015 - 10:23 am

    Ask a Filipino. They are good in English

    Reply
    • Khim -  June 20, 2015 - 3:39 am

      It’s an honor! :))

      Reply
  6. Ravichandran -  May 18, 2015 - 5:53 am

    The food that I have in the morning as breakfast is one which includes some cereals too.
    The food which I have for breakfast in the morning is one that includes some cereals.

    Are both incorrect? Are both correct? Are both partly correct? If so which parts?

    Reply
    • jared hilton loves games -  May 19, 2015 - 12:32 pm

      I LOVE JACKSEPTICEYE ON YOUTUBE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      Reply
    • Lily W -  May 19, 2015 - 3:47 pm

      I would write, “I ate some cereal for breakfast this morning.”

      Reply
    • Patricia -  May 19, 2015 - 4:47 pm

      There is something in your sentence more incorrect than that vs. which. Food is not a count noun, therefore you cannot use a specific number with it. You cannot say one food is cereal…..you can say, One type of food I have is, or one thing I have for breakfast is. But food by itself is a non-count noun and considered a big group of things, and therefore always singular and cannot be followed by something in the plural (cereals).

      You can use the word foods as a contracted form of types of foods. You can say, The foods that I have in the morning as breakfast include some (types of) cereals. You can’t use which in place of that in this sentence because it’s a restrictive clause, because the clause I have in the morning as breakfast identifies the food you’re talking about. Also I think for breakfast sounds better to me than as breakfast. American English native speaker ears talking there.

      Adding to the confusion and complication is cereal can be either non-count (as a food group–grains, oatmeal, cream of wheat, etc.) or count (as a shortened form of breakfast cereal, corn flakes, Cheerios, etc.) Yes the hole I’m digging is getting deeper and deeper, so I will stop now..

      Reply
      • duck king junior -  June 12, 2015 - 7:47 am

        well let’s shine some light on the elephant in the room here.
        “cereals”
        people in united states never use the word cereal in it’s plural form.
        when using a sentence like that it just feels off, anyway.

        Reply
        • Ron -  July 17, 2015 - 12:01 pm

          In your sentence “using” is a present participle, a form of a verb. It is not preceded by a subject, so it needs an actor to go with it. Traditionally the first word after an introductory participial phrase denotes the actor. “It” is not the actor. Your sentence could be fixed in two ways. 1. Here’s an awkward but nevertheless better way: “When using a sentence like that, I feel that it’s just off, anyway.” 2. This is more straightforward: “A sentence like that just feels off anyway.” If you want a phrase that describes the kind of solecism your sentence represents, try “misplaced modifier”, or more specifically, “dangling participle”.

          Reply
    • Jon -  May 20, 2015 - 1:45 am

      E Gower, “Plain Words” 1954 might prefer

      “My morning breakfast includes cereals”

      Reply
    • shamz -  May 20, 2015 - 5:09 am

      2nd sentence is more correct as……by using “which” u mentioned breakfast more precisely with what u have in the morning

      Reply
    • Mary -  May 23, 2015 - 4:59 am

      Both are awkward…why not just say: “I eat cereal in the morning.” appears you are getting WAY TOO bogged down with so many excessive, non-important words.

      Reply
    • WCITY -  May 27, 2015 - 1:44 pm

      Well, I’d leave out the “that” in front of “I” because the sentence doesn’t change meaning if you remove it. Then I’d change the “which” because you’re talking about something specific to the purpose of the sentence, Restrictive. However, are you saying every breakfast you have in the morning includes a type of cereal? Or it includes several cereals? Or are you saying you sometimes include cereal in your breakfast meal? I’d just leave it as My breakfasts often includes cereal, and that’s that! ;-) Which I must say, was a mouthful! lol Have a great day!

      Reply
  7. akshay kodala -  May 18, 2015 - 12:16 am

    There are some typing mistakes in this article. i.e.In 1st and 5th line from the first.

    Reply
  8. samira -  May 16, 2015 - 4:00 am

    thanks for taking this initiative of getting people to know difference between the use of “that” and “which”.

    Reply
  9. Avy -  May 16, 2015 - 2:14 am

    The whole that and which thing is ineffable. I love the minutia of it. Often I find this kind of cerebral atticism so didactic i’m bereft cold. Its like listening to maudlin music. And you always get the clever clogs, leaving comments aver rhapsodic piffle and cacophonous bafflegab. I find a diatribe of the like, leaves some simulacrum of the author, a schlemiel who’s bunkum argot rings out like diddling badinage. lets get to the point…
    Each to their own and all which.
    For example if you are shopping and are deciding that top to buy, the red or blue.
    And I find which when I come home that should I eat, a humble pie or my hat.
    Then there is that which we must not mention, I’m sure you have all heard enough of which.

    Reply
    • Vranjain -  May 18, 2015 - 1:04 pm

      Dear, I find all you have put forth amusing, in a pompous self-serving expulsion of words which, are most often heard during tea time of such clubs as those wannabe authors of unknown volumes of drivel that never published. But please, do enjoy your tea. Yes, quite amusing.

      Reply
      • Anon -  June 12, 2015 - 11:33 am

        You swear you didn’t get that user’s comment? The irony behind it?

        Reply
    • WCITY -  May 27, 2015 - 1:53 pm

      Cute. Thanks for that loquacious diatribe of malarky. Entertaining!!

      Reply
    • Rognvaldr -  June 9, 2015 - 1:53 pm

      That was some remarkable poetic dribble! Sorry to confuse the matter by using “that” as the subject of the sentence emphasizing the comment mentioned before where the clause was the complete sentence .

      Reply
  10. PeaceIsRequired -  May 14, 2015 - 6:36 pm

    Oh yea also, if you’re just talking or texting use that but if you’re writing a formal paper or something to turn in to a teacher, use which the right way lol

    PeaceIsRequired

    Reply
  11. PeaceIsRequired -  May 14, 2015 - 6:34 pm

    Really I don’t actually care, but if it’s like school stuff then, I would guess you could ask your teacher. Teachers always looove to explain/correct/teach this material!!

    PeaceIsRequired

    Reply
  12. brandon cates -  May 14, 2015 - 11:38 am

    you r too find these words

    Reply
  13. phil paxton -  May 13, 2015 - 9:31 pm

    My casual rules of thumb go like this:

    1. If you can use instead of and it reads okay, do it.

    2. If you can remove and it it reads okay, do it.

    Sometimes you only have to use rule #2 because is used.

    Reply
    • phil paxton -  May 14, 2015 - 6:39 am

      The words were lopped off.

      1. If you can use “which” instead of “that”, and it reads okay, do it.

      2. If you can remove “which” and it reads okay, do it.

      Sometimes you only have to use #2 (when there is “which” but not “that”).

      Reply
    • h -  May 18, 2015 - 10:16 am

      which

      Reply
    • Tony Exposito -  November 17, 2015 - 1:37 pm

      Whenever humanly possible, remove that.

      Reply
    • Wendy -  May 14, 2015 - 2:33 pm

      One who desire to pass exam, lol..

      Reply
    • BlueBerryMuffin -  May 14, 2015 - 7:01 pm

      If you didn’t care, why did you click on it in the first place?

      Reply
      • Vranjain -  May 18, 2015 - 1:13 pm

        Touché

        Reply
    • Me -  May 16, 2015 - 1:22 pm

      Some people do. if you don’t care, then don’t read this stuff anymore.

      Reply
    • Ian S. Rodriguez -  May 16, 2015 - 2:35 pm

      You may want to try “who cares?” as you are asking a question, and an exclamation point is not the right choice. :-)

      Reply
      • Lenny -  May 18, 2015 - 1:36 pm

        ( ͡°͜ ʖ ͡°)

        Reply
    • happy -  May 19, 2015 - 3:50 pm

      i agree

      Reply
  14. William -  May 13, 2015 - 4:05 pm

    All I know is that ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put.

    Reply
    • TerryC -  May 15, 2015 - 8:54 am

      A preposition is a terrible thing to end a sentence with.

      Reply
  15. JL -  May 12, 2015 - 8:28 am

    You my saviour, a poster or (s) ! pay the folks devoting this to be at here for all English-learners with the trustworthy info !

    Reply
  16. John Gammon -  May 12, 2015 - 8:21 am

    It’s not true that this is not an issue in British English. It’s just that nothing is really “strictly observed” in British English, and it always changes rapidly, possibly more so than other variants.

    Because of this I recommend newspaper “style guides” for British English rather than traditional grammar books, and the best of these probably belongs to the newspaper The Guardian (http://www.theguardian.com/guardian-observer-style-guide-a), which is being updated constantly. Their advice on That and Which includes this: ‘…a BBC radio interviewer who asked the question “should advertising, which targets children, be banned?” was suggesting that all advertising targets children. She meant “should advertising that targets children be banned?”‘

    Reply
    • Vranjain -  May 18, 2015 - 1:19 pm

      Excellent example and thanks for the site.

      Reply
  17. Steven S -  May 12, 2015 - 7:02 am

    Is the 1st sentence correctly worded?

    Reply
    • AlexJV -  May 15, 2015 - 10:50 am

      There does seem to be an excess “and” in the sentance, (the first one).

      Reply
      • Lauren -  July 23, 2015 - 10:37 am

        Sentence*

        Reply
  18. Justin -  May 11, 2015 - 8:15 pm

    This is one I’ve had trouble with. It can be very confusing, so usually, I try to word a sentence to where I can omit the relative pronoun. One way I find it confusing is, if “that” instead of “which” is sometimes ok, is it also ok instead of “who/whom” occasionally?

    On a closing note, I noticed that a great quote from Calvin Coolidge went, “A nation *which* forgets its defenders will itself be forgotten.”

    Reply
    • hi -  May 14, 2015 - 12:04 pm

      pinnaple, coconut, big banana, 2 little jelly beans, watermelon

      Reply
      • Maya -  May 23, 2015 - 8:18 pm

        pineapple, coconut, big banana, to squishy watermelons and a sultana

        Reply
  19. Apurba Kumar Mitra -  May 10, 2015 - 7:09 am

    Difference between THAT and WHICH in British English may kindly be intimated.

    Reply
  20. gabreeEl -  May 9, 2015 - 1:28 am

    thank you.. I’ll try not to make that blunder anymore

    Reply
  21. Belinda K -  May 8, 2015 - 5:18 am

    Wow! I loved this one & am driven to comment. Although I’ve always believed “that” was used when referring to objects, and “who” was used when referring to people, I had no knowledge about relative clauses being restrictive or nonrestrictive when using “that” versus “which”. I don’t remember being taught that in school and I consider myself a reasonably proficient grammarian. I must presume I just used the one that sounded right to me (& I pray I got that last sentence correct or I will look like a total grammar dunce… :-)

    Reply
    • Dee Vine -  May 17, 2015 - 3:03 am

      There are many things learned at school that still stick in my, now much older, mind and the use of ‘that’ when referring to objects and ‘which’ when referring to people is certainly one of them. Perhaps the concept of restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses hadn’t been invented at that time . . .

      Reply
  22. Rebecca K -  May 7, 2015 - 6:40 pm

    This is my top-most grammatical pet peeves–thank you for addressing it.
    The best example I have seen of how to tell when to use that or which–and shows that can make a difference in meaning is the following two sentences:
    All the ships in the Navy that are sinking will be need to be repaired.
    All the ships in the Navy, which are sinking, will be need to be repaired.

    Reply
    • David Lee -  May 11, 2015 - 6:02 pm

      Rebecca: You really need to proof read your emails before clicking, “send.”

      Reply
    • Abner -  May 13, 2015 - 6:50 am

      Plz elaborate on ur sinking ships. Ship can’t sail till it sinks in.

      Reply
        • BlueBerryMuffin -  May 14, 2015 - 6:58 pm

          What kind of message?

          Reply
        • Adolf -  May 15, 2015 - 1:07 pm

          kys fgt

          Reply
      • BlueBerryMuffin -  May 14, 2015 - 6:59 pm

        Ha! Got Em

        Reply
        • Lenny -  May 18, 2015 - 1:37 pm

          ( ͡°͜ ʖ ͡°)

          Reply
  23. Katie -  May 7, 2015 - 4:37 pm

    AH! I did not know that! I’ve always had a thing about the word THAT, in that, the word is overused, and unimportant to a sentence, but people use it anyway.

    That, tha , that that that is all folks!

    Reply
  24. Elizabeth Plocar -  May 7, 2015 - 2:45 pm

    The book that I found at a dusty bookstore was a real page-turner.
    Remember the book that I found at a dusty used bookstore? It was a real page-turner!

    The book that…refers to a very specific book, i.e. the one found at a dusty bookstore.

    You need a better example!

    Reply
    • Dom -  May 14, 2015 - 2:56 pm

      I’m with Elizabeth. And with Martha Kolln, if I’m reading her right. That the book was found at a dusty bookstore is information necessary to identify the book. You do need a better example.

      Reply
    • Mark Tzovarras -  May 17, 2015 - 8:32 am

      Good point, Elizabeth. Change the beginning of the sentence from “The book” to “This book” and now you need “which”.

      Reply
  25. NancyMiami -  May 7, 2015 - 2:44 pm

    I am a stickler for proper English grammar, so I appreciate these tidbits of information.

    Reply
  26. Jocelyn Robinson -  May 7, 2015 - 2:32 pm

    Does this also apply to ‘in which I serve thee ‘ and ‘in that I serve thee ‘?

    Reply
    • Jarrod -  May 12, 2015 - 3:11 pm

      The article seemed to suggest an exception in the case of ‘which’ being preceded by a preposition.

      Reply
  27. Wayne Boyce -  May 7, 2015 - 2:30 pm

    Which word to use and not abuse
    the language as it’s spoke
    that is to say until today
    I thought this was joke.
    If “that” or “which” must fill some niche
    to make my meaning plain
    then I confess I’ll do my bes’
    to not stray there again.

    Reply
    • Steven S -  May 12, 2015 - 7:00 am

      Love the poem.

      Reply
    • h honekamp -  May 13, 2015 - 5:58 am

      Is this yours? It charmed me. I’d like to quote it and give proper credit to the author.

      Reply
    • julie rohloff -  May 14, 2015 - 6:00 am

      LOVE it!

      Reply
  28. Michael -  May 7, 2015 - 1:02 pm

    Most of the time, the word “that” can be entirety omitted from the sentence and the sentence will still make sense.

    Reply
  29. Jeff -  May 7, 2015 - 12:10 pm

    “… it’s important to keep in mind the difference between and restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses.”

    I would have thought that experts in the English language would know enough to proofread their own articles. Or at least the first paragraph.

    Reply
    • Tony -  May 16, 2015 - 8:43 pm

      I agree, it’s a cardinal mistake in an article of this kind. They should know better.

      Reply
  30. pat -  May 7, 2015 - 11:34 am

    That, which I just read, was supposed to be an easy way to remember whether to use which or that? Hmmm…..

    Reply
    • Jarrod -  May 12, 2015 - 3:08 pm

      Nice!

      Reply
      • Ade -  May 14, 2015 - 2:32 pm

        Love your work!

        Reply
  31. Kh -  May 7, 2015 - 11:06 am

    I am learning whole lot about the English language from the Dictinary. Thank you. Although I’ve been an immigrant, but has become a citizen very long time ago, I find myself still learning the language, especially to use it properly. It’s really a complex language, and have so many rules! I think that (using what I’ve just learned, hopefully correctly) it will take my whole life to accomplish. I am glad I’ve signed up with the Dictinary’s free service. I greatly appreciate it. Thank you.

    Reply
    • Robert -  May 15, 2015 - 10:16 am

      Thank you Kh for learning English. It is my pleasure to welcome you. You are undertaking a daunting task to learn English. I have lived here my entire life, about half a century (notice how I avoided having to choose between that and which); I can program a computer in two dozen different languages, and I still struggle with many aspects of English (dare I call it “our language”). I am humbled by your efforts.

      Reply
  32. Alex Lotocki -  May 7, 2015 - 10:51 am

    You say:
    ” In this example, which is preceded by a comma; nonrestrictive clauses tend to follow punctuation like a comma, a dash, or parenthesis. Which is only used in RESTRICTIVE CLAUSES (therefore no comma in theory) if it’s PRECEDED BY A PREPOSITION.”

    The book, about which I had heard many differing opinions from divergent quarters, was a real page turner.
    The situation in which we found ourselves was awkward.

    Not sure I understand your point. I always thought that commas could be inserted when adding a sense of greater clarity to a long sentence.

    Reply
  33. Kattie -  May 7, 2015 - 10:17 am

    I think that it is very important post for me. posted on right time.. I was confused in that and which, which has cleared my confusion. Am I right? Thank you so much.

    Reply
  34. Ricky Forguson -  May 7, 2015 - 10:09 am

    Hmmmmm…….I did not know that! Thanks

    Reply
    • Ricky Forguson -  May 7, 2015 - 10:12 am

      The problem with learning all these language arts nuances is that you can really wear out your welcome quickly at social gatherings!

      Reply
      • Frank Casale -  May 17, 2015 - 7:36 pm

        This is true, Ricky! But you have to remember, that if you’re going to employ these vocabulary words, to use them in their respective settings. Social gatherings are “speak-easys”.
        Not everyone will share your enthusiasm in etymology.
        For example, one of the many reasons why I expand my knowledge of vocabulary, is because I have friends that cannot complete a sentence without using an expletive(s) in a sentence. Yet, I’ve known these people for years and they’re good people!
        Nevertheless, as you get older, you grow very tired of listening to these people and you “tune them out”.
        If they cannot express themselves using proper English, show them you can!

        Reply

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