Professional Style

That vs. Which

June 2009
Spot the Error

The clothing items which the children have outgrown that are stored in the downstairs closet should go to the Salvation Army.

I don’t know about you, but I’m confused. Does everything in the closet go to the Salvation Army because none of the clothing fits? Or does someone need to sort through the closet, keep what fits, and give the rest to the Salvation Army? What do you think?

The confusion stems from the improper use of which as well as the differences between restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses. Here’s a quick grammatical review. (Yes, I used the dreaded “G” word, but I modified it with quick. Trust me. You can do this.)

  • Nonrestrictive – Nonessential information that wouldn’t be missed if removed from the sentence. Set apart, usually by commas. Frequently introduced by which.
  • Restrictive – Essential information that clarifies. No commas. Frequently introduced by that.

In the “Salvation Army” sentence above, there’s a which, but no comma. So, is the phrase “which the children have outgrown” essential or nonessential? If it’s nonessential, then everything in the closet goes. If it’s essential, then someone needs to sort through the stuff. The use of which without a comma makes the meaning unclear.

Let’s take a closer look at how a that clause and a which clause can change the meaning of a sentence.

A gust of wind whipped through the shop and blew the hat that was red onto the floor.

A gust of wind whipped through the shop and blew the hat, which was red, onto the floor.

Both of these sentences are grammatically correct, but they convey different messages. The first sentence (containing an essential clause) implies that there were several hats in the shop, and the one that blew to the floor was the red one. The second sentence (containing a nonessential clause) implies that there were no other hats present … oh, and by the way, the color of the hat was red.

So, if the clause is necessary to make the message clear, use that. If the clause is nonessential, use which … and don’t forget to include commas.

~ Thank you, Tracie K., for the topic suggestion.

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