Content Writing Tips – The Difference Between ‘That’ And ‘Which’

By Coffeegraphy

Sheila took home the bone china cup that was chipped.

Sheila took home the bone china cup which was chipped.

Other than the fact that Sheila sounds like a possible shoplifter, ever wondered why, when writing an article on Microsoft word, it suddenly underlines in green, a sentence with ‘which’ in it.

Can you trust your word file’s grammar sense?

By the way, Microsoft Word did not underline both the sentences above. Why? In the case of the sentences given above, both the usages are correct (The computer did not underline them when we changed the language settings to both U.K. and U.S. English). But, in many cases ‘that’ and ‘which’ cannot be interchanged.

In the first two sentences, ‘that’ and ‘which’ introduced restrictive relative clauses. Restrictive relative clauses can be introduced by ‘that’, ‘which’, ‘who’, ‘whose’ or ‘whom’.

So what is a restrictive relative clause? This clause contains essential information about the noun before it – in this case, the bone china cup. If the restrictive relative clause is removed from a sentence, it will probably not make much sense. For example,

Sheila decided to eat muffins that were round in shape. (In this case, Sheila will eat only round-shaped muffins and not any other shape.)

A restrictive relative clause does not use a comma. Take a look at the following sentence,

Sheila decided to eat muffins, which were round in shape. (Here, Sheila decides to eat muffins. Incidentally they were round, but their shape was not important to Sheila.)

This is a non-restrictive relative clause. It follows a comma and removing it from the sentence does not affect the meaning of the main clause. Now, take a look at the following sentences.

Sheila went down the road that was steep. (There was more than one road. Sheila took the steep road.)  This is an example of a restrictive relative clause.

Sheila went down the road, which was steep. (There was only one road and it was steep.) This is an example of a non-restrictive relative clause.

The red bag that Sheila is holding is on loan from the designer. (There may be other bags. The red one that Sheila has is on loan from the designer.) This is an example of a restrictive relative clause.

The red bag, which Sheila is holding, is on loan from the designer. (There is only one bag under discussion – the red one. It is on loan from the designer.) This is an example of a non-restrictive relative clause.

Restrictive clauses focus, modify and limit. Non-restrictive clauses add additional information that would not be provided otherwise. They are set off by commas because the information they provide is supplementary. In addition, ‘that’ is never used in a non-restrictive clause.

Are you still confused? One easy rule of thumb is to say the sentence out aloud. If a pause is needed, add a comma followed by a ‘which’. And finally, if you use Microsoft word, be sure to turn on the Spelling and Grammar check feature. It will help you decide on the right choice provided the sentence is not very convoluted or complex.

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