“Which” vs. “That”: How to Use Both Correctly as a Writer

We use which and that every day. Just because these words are regularly used doesn’t mean they’re easy to use. In particular, the way they’re used with different kinds of clauses can cause a lot of confusion, but there’s an easy way out, keep reading to find out.

Grammar rules can be tricky to navigate, especially when it comes to words like “which” and “that.” However, mastering these rules is essential for clear and effective communication. Whether you’re writing for a blog, a professional report, or any other type of content, knowing how to use “which” and “that” correctly can make a significant difference in the impact of your writing.

In this blog post, we will explore the differences between “which” and “that” and provide you with practical tips on how to use both correctly as a writer. By the end of this article, you will have a clear understanding of when to use each word and how to ensure your writing is clear, concise, and grammatically correct.

What’s the Difference Between “That” vs “Which”?

The main difference between “which” and “that” is that the former is used before a nonrestrictive clause and the latter comes before a restrictive clause. Accordingly, a sentence employing “that” will contain all the information required to understand it, whereas a sentence utilizing “which” will provide extra information that isn’t required but deepens the meaning.

Let’s examine the many kinds of clauses and their roles in sentences to gain a better understanding of this concept.

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Comparing Relative and Dependent Clauses

We must first learn the meanings of “which” and “that” to decide which one to employ in relative clauses.

A dependent clause is a series of words that has both a subject and a predicate (or verb), just like a sentence. The difference between a dependent clause and a sentence (also called an independent clause) is that a dependent clause supports a sentence but cannot stand alone.

Before I ate dinner

This example is a dependent clause since it lacks a complete sentence and requires another clause to finish the idea. It has a subject (I) and a verb (ate).

Referred to as a descriptive clause or relative clause, it is a type of dependent clause that provides more information about a noun in a sentence, describing it in a particular way. Relative sentences begin with a relative pronoun and are usually often placed immediately after the nouns they modify. Identify two relative pronouns. Yes, both “that” and “which” are correct!

Before I ate dinner, which my friend made, I took a nap.

In this instance, a relative phrase is located between the commas. It starts with the relative pronoun “which” and continues with more details. In this example, it provides background information on the dinner you had, namely that it was prepared by your friend and not by anybody else.

Comparing Restrictive and Nonrestrictive Relative Clauses

Relative clauses come in two varieties: nonrestrictive and restrictive. These are also known as non-defining and defining clauses. Let’s examine a few instances.

To give the phrase a sense of completion and to help the reader grasp its meaning, restrictive clauses are relative clauses. There are no commas after it since it is an essential clause.

I liked the dinner that I ate last night.

“That I ate last night” is the defining clause in this sentence. The message it conveys is that of all the dinners I’ve had, the particular one I appreciated was the one I had last night is essential to our comprehension of the statement. How would we have known which supper we were talking about if there hadn’t been the restriction clause?

Relative clauses that transmit relevant information without altering the sentence’s meaning are known as nonrestrictive or non-defining clauses. Commas are used to separate non-restrictive relative clauses.

I liked the dinner, which wasn’t too heavy.

“Which wasn’t too heavy” is the non-defining clause in this sentence. The clause gives additional information about the supper I enjoyed, but it doesn’t alter the sentence’s main idea.

How to Determine When to Use “Which” or “That”

Depending on whether you’ve written a nonrestrictive clause (which conveys optional information) or a restrictive clause (which conveys necessary information), you may choose to use “which” or “that”.

When to Use “Which” in a sentence

You can use “which” to start a nonrestrictive clause. Recall that nonrestrictive clauses are always paired with commas and add superfluous information to the sentence.

As examples, let’s examine the following sentences:

My corn patch, which I planted in spring, is ready for harvest.

The springtime planting of the corn patch in the first sentence above is an embellishment.

Although it’s helpful to know, it doesn’t provide any necessary information to comprehend the sentence’s meaning.

The statement “My corn patch is ready for harvest” would be the same without the nonrestrictive condition. It is still a comprehensive idea and makes logic. Consequently, the phrase is nonrestrictive and ought to start with “which.”

Here’s a more illustration:

Carl forgot his lunchbox, which was blue, on the playground at recess.

The fact that the lunchbox is blue is not necessary information in this second statement. The meaning would not change if the text said, “Carl forgot his lunchbox on the playground at recess.” Thus, we have an additional nonrestrictive clause, which always starts with “which.”

The flowers, which had grown tall, were bright under the sun.

Once more, the sentence’s meaning would remain unchanged if the nonrestrictive clause ” which had grown tall” were removed.

READ ALSO: When to Use There and Their: Unlocking the Mystery of ‘There’ and ‘Their’

When To Use “that” In A Sentence

To start a limiting clause, use “that.” Restrictive clauses, which do not have commas to separate them, add necessary information to the sentence.

Here are some additional instances.

For the wedding, his shirt with the gravy stain needs to be washed.

Important details are shown in the illustration above with the gravy stain on it. The statement would still be grammatically sound without the restricted clause, but we wouldn’t know which of his numerous shirts needs to be laundered. Not just any shirt, but that exact one.

The soda that is cherry flavored is Lucy’s favorite.

Cherry-flavored food is restricted in this instance. Not all sodas are Lucy’s favorites, but cherry is her fave.

My camera that has the long-focus lens is the one I take on camping trips.

When referring to one camera out of several, for instance, you might use “that” to identify it as a subset of the group. Your readers or listeners must understand that, if you have multiple cameras, the one with the zoom is the one you take on the trail and nothing else.

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Breaking The Grammar Rule of “Which” vs. “That”

After laying out the guidelines for when to use “which” and “that,” it’s important to note that, in writing, it’s acceptable to defy the rules as experienced writers frequently do occasionally.

Although most writers only use “that” in restrictive clauses, according to convention, it’s common to find “which” employed in both restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses in modern English.

So, feel free to include “which” if you believe it improves the flow of your writing. You are among the esteemed company of writers from across the ages.

SEE ALSO: When To Use Too or To: Simplifying These Tricky Twins

What Distinguishes a Nonrestrictive Clause From a Restrictive Clause?

A restricting clause is a brief segment of a sentence that provides essential information to the remainder of the phrase, making it a type of relative clause. Should the restricted clause be removed from the sentence, the sentence’s meaning would shift. A comma will not be used to divide a limiting clause from the remainder of the sentence.

On the other hand, a nonrestrictive clause does the opposite: it adds information to the sentence that is not required to comprehend it.

Without the nonrestrictive phrase, the remainder of the statement functions perfectly. Commas are used to separate a restricted clause from the remainder of the sentence.

Frequently Asked Questions

When to use which in a sentence?

The word “which” precedes a noun or noun phrase in its capacity as a relative determiner. For instance: I’m not sure which book you purchased. “Which’ is a determiner since it comes before “book” and links “which book you bought” to “I don’t know.”

Can I use which and that in the same sentence?

No, you can’t. This is because the only instance in which they adopt the same part of speech is when they introduce relative clauses. Each word has additional applications, but things become confused when relative clauses are used.

How do you use which in the middle of a sentence?

When using which in the middle of a sentence, keep in mind that you must comma before the word, which.


Although they serve comparable functions in the English language, the terms “that” vs “which” are not exact synonyms. In American and British English, a sentence’s entire meaning can be altered by replacing “which” with “that.”


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