Grammar 7 min read

Which vs. That: How to Choose the Correct one Every Time

Main Which vs. That Takeaways:

  • Use that in defining clauses. These are essential to the sentence because if you remove this kind of clause, the meaning of the sentence changes.
  • Use which in non-defining clauses. These are not essential to the sentence because if you remove this kind of clause, the meaning of the sentence doesn’t’ change.
  • Commas usually offset non-defining clauses.
  • Use the mnemonic “sandwich crusts aren’t essential” to remember that “which” and non-defining clauses go together.
Apples that have a wormhole are said to be the tastiest.
Apples, which are my favorite fruit, grow best in cooler climates.

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What is the Difference Between Which and That?

Use that to indicate something specific. It usually introduces a defining clause that doesn’t need commas. On the other hand, use which to add more information about something specific. It usually introduces a non-defining clause that requires a comma before which and after the last word in the clause.

What is the Rule for Using That or Which?

Here is a quick and easy rule for using that or which correctly: if you remove the clause and the meaning of the sentence changes, use that without commas. If you remove the clause and the meaning of the sentence doesn’t change, use which with commas.

Let’s apply this rule for using which vs. that with our apple examples:

Apples that have a wormhole are said to be the tastiest.
Apples, which are my favorite fruit, grow best in cooler climates.
The image is split into two sides like a ying-yang symbol. On the right, the word WHICH appears against a light purple background. On the right, the word THAT appears against a yellow background. VS. is in the middle on the border of the two colors.
Choosing between “which” and “that” depends on the kind of clause your determiner will define. Use “which” for nonrestrictive clauses, and “that” for restrictive clauses.

When to use That

A defining clause is also known as an essential clause or a restrictive clause. That’s because it adds essential information to the sentence. We’re “restricted” from removing it from the sentence. Without it, the meaning would change.
Apples that have a wormhole are said to be the tastiest.

The example above contains a defining clause. The phrase that have a wormhole” defines exactly which apples I’m talking about.

To confirm that this phrase is a defining clause, try removing it from the sentence:

Apples are said to be the tastiest.

The meaning of the sentence changed.

For example, instead of talking about apples with wormholes specifically, I might be talking about apples in general. Without this defining clause, it’s not clear.

Therefore, we confirmed that this is a defining clause. And as a result, that is the correct word to use.

Apples that have a wormhole are said to be the tastiest.
A confused cartoon boy has two question marks above his head. His left arm is raised to scratch his head as he looks to the right at the text THAT OR WHICH?
Remember, “that” is used with essential/restrictive clauses, while “which” is used together with nonessential/non-restrictive clauses.

When to use Which

A non-defining clause is also known as a nonessential clause or nonrestrictive clause. It’s not essential to the meaning of the sentence, so we’re not restricted from removing it. Without it, you might lose some fun details or interesting “color” but the core meaning wouldn’t change.
Apples, which are my favorite fruit, grow best in cooler climates.

Conversely, the example contains a non-defining clause. The phrase “which are my favorite fruit” does not define which apples I’m talking about.

Instead, it gives additional information about apples in general.

Let’s confirm this phrase is a non-defining clause by removing it from the sentence. The sentence should still make perfect sense without it.

Apples grow best in cooler climates.

And it does. Without this phrase, the sentence still makes perfect sense. Therefore, which with commas is the correct choice here.

Apples, which are my favorite fruit, grow best in cooler climates.
Pro Tip: Some non-defining clauses are easy to spot because they’re offset by commas or parentheses.

Examples of Which vs. That in a Sentence

My dog that has bad breath needs to see a doggy dentist.

In this example, “that has bad breath” is a defining clause because it’s defining something about the dog.

The writer may have several dogs, but he or she is specifically talking about the one that has bad breath. That is the right choice in this case.

Cars that are hybrid use less fuel.

Here, we know that are hybrid” is an essential phrase. Without it, the phrase “cars use less fuel” has a different meaning.

Since that are hybrid” is a restrictive clause, we’re right to introduce it using that.

Two cartoon boys wear glasses and have curly hair. The boy on the left is holding the text THAT. The boy on the right holds the text RESTRICTIVE CLAUSE in his left and and has his right arm around the first boy to illustrate that restrictive clauses use the word
Use “that” for restrictive clauses.
Tara’s shoes, which she bought while on vacation, are bright green.

Tara’s shoes are bright green, whether we know that she bought them on vacation or not.

That means which she bought while on vacation” is a nonrestrictive phrase, and which is the correct word to use.

I accidentally drove over a nail, which was left outside a construction site.

While it’s interesting to know where the author found the nail, it’s not essential.

If you omit which was left outside a construction site,” the meaning of the sentence remains. Which is the right choice.

Using That vs. Which With Prepositions

Sometimes you may see that or which paired with another introductory word. The same rules apply even if that or which follows a preposition, such as by, for, or on.

I found her strange, in that she didn’t make eye contact when she talked.
His writers, of which he had three, rarely delivered their work on time.
The action movie, in which the male lead saved the world, scored big at the box office.
A cartoon sandwich against an aqua-blue background. The crusts have been cut off of the sandwich and appear next to the sandwich to illustrate that just like crusts aren't essential to a sandwich, clauses that begin with the word WHICH aren't essential to a sentence.
Use the mnemonic “sandwich crusts aren’t essential” to remember that “which” and nonessential/non-defining clauses go together.

Another Trick to Remember That vs. Which: The “Sandwhich”

When I was a kid, I wasn’t a big fan of crusts. Whenever I made a sandwich, removed the crust from the bread.

As an adult, I’ve made peace with crusts, but they still help me remember how to use that vs. which in a sentence.

Just like you can remove sandwich crusts because they’re not essential sandwhich, you can remove which clauses because they’re not essential to the sentence.

If you remove the sandwich crusts, the core of the sandwich doesn’t change. It’s still a sandwich and probably still delicious.

Similarly, if you remove the which clause, the core of the sentence doesn’t change. You’ve might lose little a little bit of detail, but the meaning stays the same.

What’s more, commas usually contain a nonessential or non-defining clause. Think of these commas as the bread on either side of the which clause sandwich.

Therefore, just associate which with sandwich to easily remember when to use which.

There are many ways to use which or that in a sentence. The important thing is to be sure you’re using them correctly. That means sticking to which when you have a nonessential or nonrestrictive clause and using that for essential or restrictive clauses.

If ever you’re not sure whether to use which vs. that, remove the clause and see if the meaning of the sentence changes.

  • Did the meaning change? Then use that.
  • Is the meaning the same? Then use which with commas.

Is it Which or That? Test Your Knowledge!

Which vs. That Question #1

“Which” and “that” are interchangeable in a sentence.
Correct! Oops! That's incorrect.

The answer is FALSE. Use “which” for non-defining clauses and “that” for defining clauses.

That vs. Which Question #2

A clause that adds essential information to a sentence is called ____
Correct! Oops! That's incorrect.

The answer is D. An essential clause is also called a defining or restrictive clause.

That or Which Question #3

Choose the correct determiner. She enjoys watching movies ___ make her cry.
Correct! Oops! That's incorrect.

The answer is B. Since “make her cry” is essential to the sentence’s meaning, use “that.”

Which or That Question #4

Choose the correct determiner. The movie, ___ made her cry, won an award.
Correct! Oops! That's incorrect.

The answer is A. Since “made her cry” is not essential to the sentence’s meaning, use “which.”

Which or That Question #5

“Sandwich crusts aren’t essential” is a mnemonic device to remember which rule?
Correct! Oops! That's incorrect.

The answer is A. This is a reminder that “which” and nonessential clauses go together.

Read More: Affect Vs. Effect: How To Choose The Correct Word

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Krista Grace Morris

Krista heads up Marketing and Content Creation here at INK. From Linguistics and History to puns and memes, she's interested in the systems we create to share our ideas with each other.

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