“All problems are boring until they’re your own.”
As pessimistic as that sounds, Red’s right. Maybe you’re in the middle of a sentence and you realize: “Wait! I don’t know if I should use that or which in this instance.” It’s important to pick the right one. You don’t want to go Jessica Simpson when you’ve got Rihanna.
Luckily, proper word usage is the new black. If you’re writing in British English, good news: that and which are accepted as interchangeable. However, if you’re writing in American English (or if you want your sentence to be as precise as possible), you need to use that and which correctly.
Before you can decide whether that or which is appropriate for a sentence, it’s important to know the difference between restrictive and non-restrictive clauses.
Restrictive Versus Non-restrictive Clauses
A restrictive clause is essential to the meaning of the sentence. If a restrictive clause were removed, the sentence would not make sense at all, or the meaning of the sentence would be significantly altered.
A non-restrictive clause introduces helpful information, but that information is not necessary for someone to be able to understand the sentence.
Remember: Every sentence is a story. Completing that story requires the correct choice: that or which.
Three Steps: That vs. Which
It’s important to keep restrictive and non-restrictive clauses in mind when considering the three steps for deciding whether to use that or which:
- Use that to introduce a restrictive clause and which to introduce a non-restrictive clause.
- When writing a restrictive clause, do not place a comma before that. When writing a non-restrictive clause, place a comma before which.
- When a non-restrictive clause appears in the middle of a sentence, place commas around it.
O’Neill, scatter the nuns! There’s a van full of examples coming through!
With the phrase “smarter than other chickens,” it is important to understand that Red is referring to a specific chicken: the smartest chicken.
“There used to be a sign that said ‘CAUTION! WET FLOOR!’ Really told people what was going on.”
The same can be said here. If the phrase “that said ‘CAUTION! WET FLOOR'” was absent, we would have no detail about the sign itself. The phrase is restrictive, so that is used.
“But it wasn’t my moral instincts that led me to Nicaragua in the summer of ’88. It was a young freedom fighter named Carlos.”
And as stated in Rule 2, that is not preceded by a comma because it is a restrictive clause.
Now let’s look at which:
“I tried everything: soap shavings, fox pee, which they sell at the Home Depot for $120 a gallon . . .”
The non-restrictive clause following which reads almost like an addendum; it’s just extra information—a side note.
“So what if he drools a small pond? He takes care of you, doesn’t he? He takes care of your mother, and he’s handsome, and he’s good. And at least he’s trying, which is a lot more than I can say for you!”
As this example shows, which should be preceded by a comma.
“Well, I’ve always thought that agnostic was sort of a cop-out. But you know, if I had to label it, I’d say that I’m a secular humanist, which is not to say I’m not spiritual.”
Piper’s rambling illustrates how non-restrictive clauses simply add more information that is not completely necessary to the creation of a complete sentence. The same can be said for O’Neill’s rant against red velvet cake:
“No, in your heart of hearts, you know as well as I do, red velvet . . . tastes like Play-Doh. It is not velvety. And the only thing that’s good about it is the cream cheese frosting, which is meant to live on top of carrot cake, like God intended.”
The addendum about carrot cake is not imperative to the sentence that explains the only good element of red velvet cake.
Seeing that and which used incorrectly is more depressing than a Tori Amos cover band. Luckily, you have all the tools in your belt to use the correct word without fail. Now you can kick up your feet, relax, and maybe even enjoy a King Cone.