Grammar Grappler #14: Deciding Between That and Which
Time for a quick pop quiz. Please choose the correct word for each of these sentences.
The advisory board members recommended a list of books [that, which] had influenced their careers.
The list of benefits, [that, which] I sent you last week, should answer all of your questions.
Scroll for the answers:
Sentence 1: that
That introduces restrictive clauses. Another way to refer to restrictive clauses is essential clauses. An essential clause is one that absolutely must be in the sentence to fully understand the meaning. If it is stripped from the sentence, the sentence loses its primary meaning.
Let’s take our sample sentence. If it simply read, “The advisory board members recommended a list of books,” then we would have no idea which books. Are they talking about the books on sale at the bookstore or the books they read in college or the books from Reese Witherspoon’s book club? No, they are referring to the books that influenced them in their career growth. It is an essential clause, and it must be introduced with the word that. Which would be grammatically incorrect in this sentence. And, you don’t separate essential clauses with commas. In other words, you don’t place commas around “that clauses.”
Sentence 2: which
Which introduces nonrestrictive clauses. Another way to refer to nonrestrictive clauses is nonessential clauses. The way I think of nonessential clauses when I teach Grammar for Grownups is to call them “garbage can clauses.” You can pull the nonessential clause from the sentence, throw it in the trash, and still not sacrifice the primary meaning of the sentence.
In our second sample sentence, the primary meaning is that the list of benefits should answer your questions. Oh, by the way, I sent you the list last week—but that has nothing to do with the primary meaning. It is a nonessential clause. You introduce nonessential clauses with the word which, and in most cases, you do separate nonessential clauses with commas.
So, here are our new and improved sentences:
The advisory board members recommended a list of books that had influenced their careers.
The list of benefits, which I sent you last week, should answer all of your questions.
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