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That vs. Which

Updated on June 19, 2012

The peacock costume, which my mother-in-law made, was my daughter's favorite costume ever!

That

That is used with essential clauses and does not require commas. In other words, what "that" is describing cannot be removed, or the sentence would not make sense. "That" is used with things or groups; "who" is used to describe people.

  • He goes to a school that has the highest academic standards.
  • I love movies that are insightful but end in a positive way.
  • She is a person who has strong political aspirations.

("He goes to school," does not convey the complete meaning of the first sentence; "I love movies," is not the point of the second sentence. In the third sentence, "who" is used because we are describing a person not a thing or group.)

Note: When a sentence contains this, that, those, or these you may use which to introduce the next clause. This is true with both essential and non-essential clauses.

  • This is a topic which I am unable to discuss.
  • Those are the earrings which I will wear to the party.

Although both of these sentences are grammatically correct; both could be reworded for a bit more clarity:

  • I am unable to discuss this topic.
  • I will wear those earrings to the party.

What is the difference between "that" and "which"?

Hub request: "Could you possibly confirm to me the difference in usage of "that" and "which"?" Here is the breakdown, as I see it. Please leave a comment at the bottom if you have anything to add! ;)

Which

Which is used with non-essential clauses and is usually surrounded by commas. In other words if the clause was removed it wouldn't change the sentence.

  • She had a dog, which was incredibly smart, that she brought to the competition.
  • Her opinion, which was always influenced by her mother, was to go ahead with the remodel.

(In both of these sentences if you take out the clause between the commas the sentence would still make sense: She had a dog that she brought to the competition; Her opinion was to go ahead with the remodel. I would also argue that the first sentence, although grammatically correct, would sound better: She had an incredibly smart dog that she brought to the competition.)

Thoughts, Comments, Questions?

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    • profile image

      Himanshu  

      7 years ago

      I like this page very much. it's a suitable points for the person whoes not known about english well.

    • profile image

      pedant 

      7 years ago

      "I like better to use who in your example" - why does a muppet who doesn't know the word "prefer" feel able to comment on grammar?

    • pinkhawk profile image

      pinkhawk 

      8 years ago from Pearl of the Orient

      ...sometimes I'm also confused with these words...grammar is my problem most of the time, glad I've read this hub.. thank you for the lesson, very helpful! ^.^

    • profile image

      LoL 

      8 years ago

      thanks a lot!!!

    • matiano_9 profile image

      matiano_9 

      8 years ago

      Nice hub, think I need to read the rest of your grammar hubs and then go through all of mine with a big red pen for some corrections!

    • profile image

      Gary 

      9 years ago

      Hi there,

      Can you cite a source that also explains the exception about sentences that contain "this", "that", "those", or "these"? The examples sound a bit strange to me, but it might just be that I've never heard of this rule.

      I usually just go with restrictive vs. non-restrictive clauses to determine whether to use "that" or ", which...,".

      Great post, otherwise!

    • profile image

      Pablo 

      10 years ago

      Hello Robin, first of all, thank you for your hubs. They are very useful to me at work. I have a question: When making reference to a group of people, is it better to use "who" or "that"? For example: We fired a lot of managers who/that were not performing. I would be inclined to use "who" because we are talking about people, but in the hub you mention something about using "that" when talking about groups. Thanks.

    • Robin profile imageAUTHOR

      Robin Edmondson 

      11 years ago from San Francisco

      Hi, Matt. I agree deciphering between restrictive and non-restrictive clauses can be difficult.  If the sentence contains information that is not vital to its overall meaning, then it is non-restrictive and we use commas."Because" is a subordinating conjunction.  Other subordinating conjunctions include: although, before, since, till, unless, whereas, whether, and while.  "Because" and the other subordinating conjunctions do not use a comma to connect their clauses.  I hope this is what you were asking.  If not, please leave an example, and I'll try again! ;)

    • profile image

      Matt Rudd 

      11 years ago

      Can you please explain when to use commas before phrases beginning with the word "because" in restrictive and non-restrictive situations? While I understand the basic rule (no commas with restrictive/essential clauses), in practice the difference between an essential and non-essential phrases is difficult, for me, to spot. Thanks. (PS I love your explanations).

    • Robin profile imageAUTHOR

      Robin Edmondson 

      11 years ago from San Francisco

      Yes, you're right. I meant to change the sentence before; I'll do it now.  Thanks!

    • Ralph Deeds profile image

      Ralph Deeds 

      11 years ago from Birmingham, Michigan

      I'm not sure, but I recall being taught that "She is a person WHO has political aspirations." is preferable to "She is a person THAT has political aspirations." Am I incorrect or simply pedantic?

    • Robin profile imageAUTHOR

      Robin Edmondson 

      11 years ago from San Francisco

      Thanks, George. I agree. I think it's the same with my first example in the "which" section. You are way more of an authority on these things and your input is always appreciated! I wanted to get your thoughts on my prepositions hub: https://owlcation.com/humanities/Grammar_Mishaps__... When you have a chance, the question is in the last comment. ;)

    • gredmondson profile image

      gredmondson 

      11 years ago from San Francisco, California

      Hi Robin,

      I like better to use who in your example: She is a person who has strong political aspirations. Who is a relative pronoun that may only refer to people. That may refer to people or things. Sometimes these constructions are used to word pad; in those cases most likely it is better to just get straight to the point: She has strong political aspirations.

    • Robin profile imageAUTHOR

      Robin Edmondson 

      11 years ago from San Francisco

      Thanks, she loooved her costume. She pranced around like a real peacock. It was hilarious. ;)

    • profile image

      IĆ°unn 

      11 years ago

      good hub and I love your daughter's costume... too cute! she's adorable.

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