Understanding “That” vs. “Which” in Relative Clauses

As a young writer, I used the words “that” and “which” interchangeably, typically selecting whichever one sounded better in a given sentence. It embarrasses me greatly that I was well into adulthood before I learned the difference between the two. Here’s how it breaks down:

  • “That” is used to introduce restrictive relative clauses. A restrictive clause narrows the scope of the noun it modifies. In other words, it clarifies what the noun is pointing to when more than one possibility exists. Take the following example:

    “I wrote two emails and sent one of them. The email that I didn’t send contained my true feelings.”

    The first sentence mentions two emails. Therefore, the relative clause is necessary in order to identify which email I’m talking about in the second sentence. If I remove the restrictive clause, my meaning becomes unclear:

    “I wrote two emails and sent one of them. The email contained my true feelings.”

  • “Which” is used to introduce nonrestrictive relative clauses. A nonrestrictive clause provides additional information without restricting the scope of a noun. For example:

    “I wrote both a letter and an email. The email, which I didn’t send, contained my true feelings.”

    In this case, there’s no need to identify the email in the second sentence since context has already limited the scope to one possible email. The nonrestrictive clause contains useful information but is not necessary to preserve clarity of meaning. It can be deleted without causing any confusion:

    “I wrote both a letter and an email. The email contained my true feelings.”

If you’re unsure whether a relative clause should be restrictive or nonrestrictive, see what happens if you remove it. If the sentence that contained the clause still makes sense in context, the clause should probably be nonrestrictive. If clarity of meaning suffers when the clause is taken out, it should probably be restrictive.

One thought on “Understanding “That” vs. “Which” in Relative Clauses

  1. There are some interesting info’s in this aicrtle but I don’t know if I see all of them middle to heart. There’s some validity but I’ll take maintain opinion until I look into it further. Good aicrtle , thanks and we would like extra! Added to FeedBurner as well

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