The Bewitching Question Of "THAT" "WHICH"

Every writer seriously looking to hone her craft faces this dilemma of choosing between "THAT" and "WHICH." After all, it seems that they imply the same thing.

Take the example of the following sentence we used in one of our earlier articles;

  1. The storytelling, which is the most sought-after format right now, falls into the narrative writing category.

This is an example of what is grammatically known as "non-restrictive" clause. It adds more information to the object or situation being described, but the meaning of the sentence will not change even if you don't use it.

Let's rewrite the same sentence without using the non-restrictive clause.

The storytelling falls into the narrative writing category.

The meaning of the sentence is still the same. Let us see another sentence now.

The house that I bought last year offers an excellent view of the sunrise.

The use of "that" in the above sentence implies that I have many houses. And only the one bought last year provides an excellent view. It restricts the meaning of the sentence. This is also a restrictive clause.

Let us try to simplify the definitions of restrictive and non-restrictive clauses a bit. A "restrictive" clause is the one that restricts the identity of the object or the situation in the sentence to something specific. A non-restrictive term is the one that describes additional characteristics of what is being described but does not explicitly restrict the identity. See the following two sentences.

  • I drive my car that goes very fast occasionally.

  • I drive my car, which goes very fast, occasionally.

In the first sentence, the use of "that" restricts the meaning to one specific car. In the second sentence, though, "which" clause does not speak about the identity of the car. It only describes the speed of the vehicle. The first sentence speaks about one car, possibly out of many. However, the second sentence is more concerned with describing one of the characteristics of that object.

Till around the 17th century, both "which" and "that" were used interchangeably. Now, we prefer to use these two terms to differentiate the context. Using the above two statements, let's try to understand them. A novice author or reader may not pick up the slight difference in meaning, but for an experienced reader, one may create confusion.

In current times, the use of both - "which" and "that" is acceptable in case of a restrictive clause. However, a sentence with a non-descriptive clause must use "which," surrounded by commas. Our advice to you would be though to use "that" and "which" for restrictive and non-restrictive clauses, respectively. Such a separate use is appropriate for your own clarity and consistency for your readers.

Have you encountered the confusion between "that" and "which"? If yes, can you share examples? Or can you think of new examples like that? Please share with the community, and let's grow as content masters together.

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