Learn when to use that or which

Many people struggle with when to use ‘that’ and when to use ‘which’. To help me remember when to use each, I like to keep it really simple.

Use ‘that’ to present essential information

A suitcase that has lost its handle is useless.

In this sentence, the word ‘that’ introduces essential information about the suitcase. If you leave it out, the meaning is changed.

Use ‘which’ to present extra information

The suitcase, which had no handle and was covered in airport stickers, dragged behind him.

In this sentence, the word ‘which’ introduces extra information about the suitcase. If you leave it out, the sentence is less descriptive, but its general meaning is not changed.

Use commas to enclose extra information

Use a comma before and after extra information (imagine you’re putting it in brackets):

The leaf, which was a delicate shade of green, stuck to the window.

Essential information does not need commas:

Use only leaves that are green for garnishing the cocktails.

More examples

Kiwifruit that were affected by disease had to be binned.

Kiwifruit, which are usually expensive at this time of year, were on special today.

Cars that have hybrid technology are really fuel-efficient.

My car, which is a hybrid, goes 100km on 6 litres.

The biggest savings came from items that were discounted.

The biggest saving came from chicken, which fell about 20 cents per kilo.

Be aware that others may do it differently

The Oxford English Dictionary says it’s also correct to use ‘which’ to present essential information. Be aware that other people may follow this rule. I stick to one word for each situation because I find that easiest to remember.

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7 responses to “Learn when to use that or which”

  1. Sarah Maclean says:

    Thanks for the reminder!

  2. Malcolm Bell says:

    Let’s try this version:
    Always love these tips. In the one on ‘which’ and ‘that’, we can often shorten sentences by leaving those words out. Eg “My hybrid car does 4L/100km” or “The biggest savings came from discounted items” and so on.

  3. Malcolm Bell says:

    Always love thuese tips. In the one of ‘which’ and ‘that’, we can often shorten sentences by leaving those words out those words can be left out. Eg “My hybrid car does 4L/100km” or “The biggest savings came from discounted items” and so on.

    • eleanormeecham says:

      Quite right Malcolm. It’s often possible to rewrite to avoid using extra words. In fact, I had to keep reminding myself not to edit out all uses of ‘that’ from the examples in this post!

  4. Dan Hoger says:

    Excellent writing tips! Thank you.

  5. annemarie254 says:

    So much easier to remember than restrictive and non-restrictive clauses!

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