Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Which or That?

The which-or-that battle is another of angst-ridden debates over which purists will commit hara-kiri--or murder.

One argument is that "which" or "that" doesn't matter, as they have become interchangeable in very common usage, and since language evolves, well, that's that. (But not which's which. Ha.)

I prefer the rule (possibly more of a guideline) that says that "which" precedes an incidental comment about the subject (that is, it's not important to understanding the sense of the sentence), while "that" precedes something that is crucial to understanding the sense of the sentence.

For example, someone compliments you on your hat. You can respond: "This hat, which I love dearly, came from Afghanistan." The meaning of the sentence "This hat came from Afghanistan" is changed in no way at all by the "which" clause. It doesn't restrict the subject--"this hat"--because there is only one hat on your head and you can say anything you want about it but there's still just one hat on your head.

Compare to someone complimenting you on your collection of hats, none of which you are wearing at the moment. You can respond, "The hat that came from Afghanistan is my favorite." The sentence "The hat is my favorite" does NOT make sense without the "that" clause, because no one will know which hat you are discussing. It restricts the discussion to a specific hat out of many.

If you want the official terms, you use "that" for a restrictive clause--it restricts the discussion to the specific thing described (from the pile of hats, we're restricting the discussion to the one from Afghanistan), and you use "which" for a nonrestrictive clause--it doesn't restrict the original subject of the sentence in any way (the hat on my head is my favorite; the fact that it is your favorite doesn't narrow it down or restrict the discussion in any way.)

"Which" and "that" are complicated because they are used in a variety of ways that depend on context. (Hmm, you say, why did she use "that depend..." in this sentence rather than ", which depend..."? Yes, it gets subtle. My primary point is that the usage depends on context; I don't want someone to discard that clause as irrelevant. If I wanted merely to emphasize that they are used in a variety of ways and merely point out in passing that context matters, I could have said, " a variety of ways, which depend on context.") Yes. Here, the difference is indeed subtle; you have to decide what it is that you're really trying to say and see whether removing the clause changes the essential meaning.

Which house did Jack build? -- "This is the house that Jack built."

Is this the house where we're meeting? "Yes, this is the house, which Jack built." (The fact that Jack built the house has nothing to do with where the meeting will take place; it's just an interesting side note.)

The original question was posted as a comment to this post:

(1) This is a unique post THAT is an unusually useful one?
(2) This is a unique post, WHICH is an unusually useful one?

First, note the use of the comma with "which" as a nonrestrictive clause.

Next, to know which is correct, you have to figure out the writer's primary meaning. In fact, in this case, it's hard to tell. If you removed "an unusually useful one" from the sentence, leaving "This is a unique post," is the main meaning still intact?

I'd interpret the writer's underlying possible meanings as:

(1) This post is both unique and unusually useful. [Perhaps compared to other unique posts, many of which might not be useful, or useful but not unusually so.]
(2) This post is unique. By the way, it's also useful. [I admire the fact that it's unique. But I ought to mention in passing that I also found it useful.]


steph said...

This was, indeed, an unusually useful and unique post!

When I got to upper-division tech writing, I was using "which" in places where my [British-trained] prof corrected me in unusually harsh and ultimately un-useful ways. Never explained it at all well. So, I switched to using "that" unless I couldn't force it that direction and he was fine with it.

Go figure. I might even be able to do better now and with a reason. Thanks!

Elf said...

Disclaimer: British English (more correctly, "Commonwealth English") sometimes does things differently. I can't be held responsible for Brit grammar or spelling.

...Well except that right this moment I'm working on a document that's supposed to be delivered in UK English.

Leandro said...


I would have a request. I am from Italy and my English seems to be more similar to the American one than to British one. I would like to know what is the difference in use between "ever" and "always".
The phrase is: "This is the experience I have ever wanted" or "This is the experience I have ever dreamt".

Could you help me please?

Elf said...

Thanks for the interesting question. I have posted a response.

Anonymous said...

Oh, nice! Now I understand the difference.
Thank you! I am sure that your blog is helpful for ESL folks like me.
I got to your blog through Google looking for an answer to the puzzle: A or AN unique.
Now I know. =)
I will add you to the list of good blogs on my Links page.