"That" vs. "Which"

For pity’s sake, will someone please explain this to me in an understandable (by an idiot) manner? I’ve read and re-read the goddam Chicago Manual of Style, and I’ll be jiggered if I can make head or tail out of it.

For example: “There are many hats that she might have worn,” or, “There are many hats which she might have worn.” Or, “It was a role that she’d always wanted to play” vs. “It was a role which she’d always wanted to play.”


That with which you speak of…is exactly why I decided that journalism is not for me.

Left my “little brown book” at home today…


“That” is for restrictive clauses – ones that would change the meaning of the sentence if removed.

“Which” is for unrestrictive clause – those which can be removed without changing the meaning of the sentence.

However, the rules are loose and only a real pedant would call you on most misusages.

Use “that” to say which, and “which” to say that.

In other words, in

“I kissed the girl that gargled with Scope.”

I am using “that” to identify the specific girl I kissed. I could have kissed any of several girls, but “that” identifies which one.


“I kissed the girl, which gargled with Scope.”

you presumably know which girl I am talking about, and as a free bonus you get the information that she gargled with Scope.

Hopefully it was not to get the dreadful taste out of her mouth.

Flora, you didn’t mention the type of writing you are concerned with. For example, in business writing, I recommend avoiding both of those constructions to the extent possible, especially ‘which’.

Go on a which hunt. In other words, find another way to say it, perhaps breaking up your sentence into 2.

Wouldn’t it be: “I kissed the girl WHO gargled with Scope” ??

I kist thuh gal what gargled with sope?

“non sunt multiplicanda entia praeter necessitatem”
– William of Ockham

Here’s what Strunk and White have to say on the subject:
That. Which. That is the defining, or restrictive pronoun; which the nondefining or nonrestrictive.

The use of “which” for “that” is common in written and spoken language (“Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass.”) Occasionally “which” seems preferable to “that,” as in the sentence from the Bible. But it would be a convenience to all if these two pronouns were used with precision. The careful writer, watchful for small conveniences, goes *which-*hunting, removes the defining whiches, and improves his work.

Live a Lush Life
Da Chef

Thanks, guys, I’m going to print this and try to hash it all out when things are quieter at work. Frustratingly, I don’t have the option of doing extensive re-writes, so I have to deal with “which” and “that” when they rear their ugly heads . . .

Jens and Chef Troy have put in a sincere effort towards helping grammar-challenged people such as myself. I think I see the point you are trying to make, but your use of commas is getting in my way. The pauses and inflections caused by the commas seem to accomplish the same thing as the that/which word would.

Could you give us an example without using commas?

Actually, Keeves, the commas are integral to the difference between the two. Nonrestrictive clauses using “which” are almost always set off by commas (actually, I can’t think of any that aren’t). In fact, one rough rule of thumb as to which to use is to say the sentence aloud using “which” and no pauses. If it sounds weird, you should probably use “that.”

Anyway, to recap, use “which” if you are supplying additional information about the subject, and “that” if you are specifying which of several possible subjects you are referring to.

Live a Lush Life
Da Chef

That is something up with which we should not put – which, other than that, is such as whichever is right and as that may be.

That which is what was is that which will ever be, whichever that is.


That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.

One addendum:

Use “which” as a substitute for “that” when it refers back to a noun before the one that immediately precedes it:

I read the book that came out last year (as opposed to other books).

I read the book, which came out last year (only talking about one book).

I read the book of poetry that came out last year (“that” = “poetry”).

I read the book of poetry which came out last year (“which” = “book”).

Aw, cripes, now I’m more confused than ever . . .

That which does not kill us makes us stronger.
That which DOES kill us makes us stronger still.
(seen on button)

I’m sorry to hear you’re confused, Flora. Let me try this:

“All dogs that have blue eyes are deaf” contains a restrictive clause, because “All dogs are deaf” is nonsense. Therefore, “that have blue eyes” is not set off by commas, and it uses the word “that”.

In “Bulldogs, which have enormous heads, must be born by caesarean section”, “which have enormous heads” is an unrestrictive clause since “Bulldogs must be born by caesarean section” is a valid sentence. Therefore, “which have enormous heads” is set off by commas, and it uses the word “which”.

Finally, “which” is also used to describe entire sentences: “I couldn’t get any icecream, which pissed me off.”

I don’t buy that book-poetry distinction as sufficiently worded. You have to use ‘which’ and repeat the prior noun, in the case where you want to modify that noun, or else use say ‘such book of poetry as’. To really assure modification of ‘poetry’, rather than book, you might want to add ‘that’ before ‘poetry’ and use ‘which’ after it.

Ray (No poetic licenses issued for the rest of this millenium.)

And as to the ice-cream bit: If you change the puntuation, you can use ‘that’ (albeit the demonstrative version of it): ‘I couldn’t get ice cream. That pissed me off.’ :wink:

Ray (Chill out.)

And ‘that’ and ‘which’ may be used successively: ‘All that is reported that is fit to print that I know about that you need to know.’ ‘I took the one on top, which was the biggest, which got me more for my money, which is how I got so rich.’

Ray (. . .who lived in the house that Jack built.)