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Please can someone give me an idiot's guide to the use of WHICH or THAT

(27 Posts)
FreckledLeopard Thu 14-Mar-13 17:36:51

I'm a pedant. I'm a lawyer for crying out loud. Yet I do not understand when to use that and when to use which. I've just looked at a load of grammar sites and am still none the wiser.

Please please put me out of my misery (without referring to restrictive or non-restrictive clauses)!

NotMostPeople Sat 16-Mar-13 08:33:42

Brilliant I get it now.

NotTreadingGrapes Sat 16-Mar-13 08:32:09

The defining and non-defining relative clause thingy <<<technical word there is easier to understand with a "who" sentence:

My sister who is a nurse lives in Birmingham.
My sister, who is a nurse, lives in Birmingham.

How many sisters?

Sentence 1- I have more than 1 sister, therefore the "who is a nurse" can't be lifted out of the sentence and still make it comprehensible as to which one I mean.

Sentence 2 - I only have 1 sister and am giving you some extra (and non-essential) information. I could lift that bit between the commas out and you would still know who I am talking about.

That can replace which/who (but is considered less formal) in defining clauses only. (rule of thumb, if both which/that can be used, which is "more correct" (ie sounds better and more formal)

Snazzynewyear Fri 15-Mar-13 20:23:32

'Which' introduces 'extra' information, that you could take out and the still understand the meaning of the sentence. 'That' leads to essential info, e.g. the painting that was in the hall - you need to know it was that specific painting as there are others you might confuse it with. If in doubt it's likely that 'that' is what you need. Which gets overused as (I think) people think it sounds slightly more formal and therefore is somehow better.

However <whispers> if what you're writing is not likely to be ambiguous, then I wouldn't worry about it too much. And I say that as someone who has taught grammar in their time.

missorinoco Fri 15-Mar-13 20:18:37

Intersting. I think I understand it now, although the phrase parathentical clause made me shudder to realise how much I have forgotten/never knew.

bigbadbarry Fri 15-Mar-13 19:01:20

To go back to your painting example, to me the painting that was hanging in the hall means not the one that was in the kitchen. The painting, which was hanging in the hall, ios just giving some extra info about where it had been.

fuzzpig Fri 15-Mar-13 18:58:22

<attempts to understand>

<falls over>

Maryz Fri 15-Mar-13 18:49:26

Yes, I think that's probably what I do, instinctively.

In fact, I think I get it right most of the time if I don't think about it. When I start thinking I confuse myself. Mostly because of my old boss who for some reason always thought "that" was wrong and kept changing it.

bigbadbarry Fri 15-Mar-13 18:44:15

I'm a scientific copy editor, which means we do have some unusual and old-fashioned rules, but I would never use which without a comma. That shouldn't need one. That gives you specific information about something; which adds extra information that is not necessary to the sense. You should be able to remove the which-containing clause and have the sentence still make sense.

Maryz Fri 15-Mar-13 18:38:31

You see, I would read your second on as saying the shelf was green [baffled]

I think I will use which when I use commas, and that when I don't. Because my aged brain can't cope with actually thinking about it too much.

anneriordan Fri 15-Mar-13 18:29:14

someone once explained it to me as follows:

"Please pass me the fourth book on the shelf, which is green" - you fetch the fourth book along, which happens to be green (and also happens to be boring, heavy, whatever)

"Please pass me the fourth book on the shelf that is green" - you count along the green books only, so you might end up with the 5th, 6th, nth book on the shelf, if that's the fourth green bood.

"That" means the qualifier is essential. In the case above it would be simpler to say "pass me the fourth green book" but a lot of other characteristics are harder to turn into adjectives, hence "that".

I think that's the same as euphemia's version. You don't always need commas to separate the "which" bit but it helps to indicate that it's incidental (or parenthetical).

Maryz Fri 15-Mar-13 18:19:07

I got as far as the word "clause" in that sentence somebloke, and my brain turned off blush

The guardian ""that" defines, "which" gives extra information (often in a parenthetical clause enclosed by commas)." sounds right and agrees with Euphemia, but I still think you could use either of Euphemia's examples with or without commas and be right either way:

The painting that was hanging in the hall was stolen.

The painting which was hanging in the hall was stolen.

The painting, which was hanging in the hall, was stolen.

The painting, that was hanging in the hall, was stolen. - this one is clunky, the others seem ok to me.

And to me the first two (without the commas) have the same meaning, specifying that the painting I am talking about is the one that/which is hanging in the hall (still don't know whether to use that or which)


somebloke123 Fri 15-Mar-13 14:39:30

Hmm - I completely see the distinction in meanings explained by Euphemia but I still think it's the commas that do it. I think in the first example you could replace "that" with "which" and it would keep the same meaning but admittedly might not sound quite as good.

However, an interesting comment from the book "Grammar and Style" by Michael Dummet (page 86) tends somewhat towards Euphemia's view:

"When the relative clause is essential to determine the reference ..... that is preferable to which and often to who: the hat that I bought yesterday is usually better than the hat which I bought yesterday. This principle is not sacrosanct however; for instance, if there are already two occurrences of that in the sentence, which should be preferred."

Chickpeas2 Fri 15-Mar-13 14:33:37

Have always struggled with this too...found link below, seemed to make sense while I was reading it...!

Guardian link

SunshineOutdoors Fri 15-Mar-13 14:23:13

I've always thought you use them how Euphemia explained.

SunshineOutdoors Fri 15-Mar-13 14:22:15

I thought if you used which it always had to be preceded by a comma and if you're not using a comma then it's that, so you couldn't say 'the painting which was in the hall...' or 'the painting, that was in the hall....'

somebloke123 Fri 15-Mar-13 14:08:02

I'd agree it sounds a bit clunky ("the sausages I bought" sounds better) but I think it's correct.

No I don't think it's always a question. In "the painting which was hanging in the hall" there's no question implied. I think "which" here is a relative pronoun.

NotMostPeople Fri 15-Mar-13 13:43:30

I've no idea but "the sausages which I bought for supper" doesn't sound right to me.

Isn't which always a question?

FreckledLeopard Fri 15-Mar-13 13:39:57

Commas aside, there is definitely a difference between which and that and they cannot be used interchangeably. But how one tells, I don't know.


somebloke123 Fri 15-Mar-13 11:20:19

Euphemia Surely the difference in meaning that you refer to is effected by the use of commas in your second example, not by the use of "which" rather than "that"?

It seems to me that you can always substitute "that" for "which" in phrases such as "The sausages which/that I bought for supper".

But obviously not when it's used interrogatively - "Which ones do you mean?"

Maryz Thu 14-Mar-13 19:30:45

And there, I've used a that in "a simple explanation that I couldn't understand".

Should it be "a simple explanation which I couldn't understand"?

My spell-checker says both are fine, but that doesn't mean much.

Maryz Thu 14-Mar-13 19:29:25

Oops, obviously I'm not good at italics grin

Maryz Thu 14-Mar-13 19:29:00

See, I just knew someone was going to come up with a simple explanation that I couldn't understant <weeps> I'm ^good at grammar, this one just stumps me.

I mean, I can understand what you are saying, but I know next time I write the sentence I will get it wrong.

Euphemia Thu 14-Mar-13 19:09:10

The painting that was hanging in the hall was stolen.

The painting, which was hanging in the hall, was stolen.

In the first example, the phrase "that was hanging in the hall" is crucial as it makes it clear that it was this particular painting, not the painting hanging in the drawing room, or anywhere else, that was stolen.

In the second example, we are just being given some extra information about the painting.

missorinoco Thu 14-Mar-13 19:08:15

As far as I can recall which relates to people and that to inanimate objects. Or at least that's what the spelling and grammar application does to my work.

FreckledLeopard Thu 14-Mar-13 19:03:39

Like most of my legal drafting blush

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