Q&A: WHICH vs THAT? And a zebra.

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, a real crowd favourite… WHICH vs THAT!

Q: Hi AWC, thanks for doing that Q&A about relative pronouns last week on who vs that.
A: You’re welcome.
Q: Aren’t you going to thank me? I was part of it too.
A: What? Oh, um, yes, thanks to you too.
Q: Well anyway, it did open up the expected can of worms – namely people asking if we could do a Q&A on “that” vs “which”.
A: Ah yes, that which we expected…
Q: Indeed. So, can we do that one?
A: Sure. Of course, this is a whole different kettle of fish to last week’s context.
Q: Indeed it is. Cans of worms and kettles of fish. What is it with you and animals inside containers today?
A: Well aren’t you just a box of birds…
Q: Life’s not always a barrel of monkeys you know. Now, why don’t you let the cat out of the bag on “which” vs “that” – I’m constantly getting the green squiggly line on my documents, but I’m not entirely sure why. Please tell me the rule is clear!
A: Surprisingly, yes – considering the number of people who come unstuck with this one all the time.
Q: I read a statistic that said someone gets it wrong every 12 seconds.
A: Did you make that statistic up?
Q: Yes. Yes I did.
A: Okay, but let’s look at what you said. “I read a statistic THAT said someone gets it wrong every 12 seconds.” You used “that” here – correctly by the way – because you were introducing information that was crucial to the sentence.
Q: Ah okay.
A: It’s known as a “restrictive clause” – because the meaning would be completely restricted if you took away what “that” introduces.
Q: More examples?
A: Sure. “This is the train that I was telling you about.” Or “The one that had spots instead of stripes was the most popular of all the zebras.”
Q: What if it’s a person – do we change “that” to “who” like we did last week?.
A: Exactly. So you’d have “The woman who we need to see is on the fifth floor.”
Q: What about “which” then?
A: It usually introduces a “non-restrictive clause” – kind of like notes in the margin of a book. These are ‘asides’ that (not which) add more information not crucial to understanding a sentence. Punctuation defines them, usually with a comma before and after.
Q: Examples for these?
A: So you’d say “The zebra, which arrived last week from China, has spots instead of stripes.” Or “The train, which travels the route twice a day, is painted red.”
Q: So do all non-restrictive clauses contain “which”?
A: Not at all – it’s any segment of a sentence that doesn’t affect the rest of it. The commas, which act like perforations, allow you to lift that part without changing things. That last sentence’s non-restrictive clause contained “which”, but this next one doesn’t. “The tree, severely weakened by the storm, toppled to the ground.”
Q: So always two commas?
A: Well one to introduce the clause, but if it’s the last thing in the sentence it obviously won’t need one to close. So, “I sat down to read the AWC newsletter, which gets sent to me every Thursday.”
Q: And I suppose “who” can be found in these non-restrictive clauses too?
A: Of course: “Jack, who was younger than Jill, climbed the hill to fetch the water.” Or again, ending a sentence: “I went to see the vicar, who was visiting from another village.” It’s all about adding more information to aid understanding.
Q: Can I have a final set of examples for “which” vs “that”?
A: You certainly can. “The Olympics, which celebrate excellence in sport, take place every four years.” And “The Olympics that were held in Sydney were the best ever.”
Q: They really were.
A: We know, right?
Q: Okay, so choose “which” if the information doesn’t restrict the sentence meaning. Whereas “that” for the essential stuff which is part of meaning of the sentence.
A: Indeed – and remember that you’ll need a comma for “which” but none for “that”. Happy?
Q: Happy as a jar of jaguars…

Do you have a grammar grizzle or punctuation problem that you’d like our Q&A to explore? We’d love to hear it. Just email us here.

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