When students make a mistake in using which or that, I tell them to look up “which versus that,” rather than detailing the rule, which is slightly complicated. Not very complicated, mind you, but slightly. I’ll lay it out for you here.
Pick out the dress that you want. The dress, which you said you wanted, is in the closet.
Now, don’t let the words throw you off, but the difference here is in whether the information is necessary to the entire sentence—restrictive—or nonrestrictive, meaning the sentence can do without the clause.
In the first sentence, “Pick out the dress that you want,” we need the information “that you want” to describe the dress, or the sentence doesn’t do its job. In the second sentence, we can do without the “which you said you wanted,” because we still will know that the dress is in the closet.
Really, rather than trying to understand ‘restrictive” and “nonrestrictive” if the explanation doesn’t jump out at you, just try the sentence you might want to insert a “which” in.
Pick out the dress which you want.
Ask yourself if you want a comma in front of the “which” or will that change the meaning of the sentence drastically.
If we say, “Pick out the dress, which you want,” the meaning of the sentence has been changed. We’re saying here that the person wants that dress. But does she? If we don’t know, we don’t want the comma and we don’t want a which. We’ll choose a “that” for the sentence. Pick out the dress that you want.
Conversely, if you do want a comma in front of the “which” or “that,” then you probably will use the “which.”
The comma generally means you follow with a “which.”
Why would you not use a “which” after the comma? One anomaly would occur when you already have a “which” nearby. In that case, you’re entitled to use a “that.”
I understand that the “which/that” divide is a bit obscure and maybe sounds a little like figuring out square roots, but I guarantee if you make an effort and go over the ideas a few times, a little bell will start to ring in your head. You’ll at least be alert to the question—which is a good thing—and will eventually settle down into a correct use of the two choices. Silly as this seems, the differing use of these two words is important in our writing. Ask me if you’re puzzled about a particular use.
You can also take a class with me at Writer’s Digest University online: https://www.writersonlineworkshops.com/
- 12/08/2016 – 03/02/2017, 12 Weeks to a First Draft (a 12-week class for those focused on making a good start in writing that novel)
- 12/15/2016 – 01/26/2016, Writing the Mystery Novel
You can also buy one of my novels at Amazon. Last up was Question Woman & Howling Sky in print or as a download. Or download The Naked Writer for some comprehensive writing advice—style and punctuation.
Here’s a fun novel to enjoy:
Havelock by Andrew Buckley and Jane D. Everly https://goo.gl/njiKRN
When Eliana Havelock presents the opportunity to undermine an international arms disaster, the head of MI-6 partners her with one of its best and brightest, the enigmatic Connor Blackwell. But in a world of secrets and hidden agendas, who can Eliana trust? And what, or who, is Eliana really after?