That/which

October 14, 2010

I haven’t updated here in awhile, and I really do have things that I want to say. Trouble is, I’m supposed to be working on my dissertation proposal. Writer’s block is a drag, and I’m in arguably the most epic existential-crisis-producing stage of the academic doctorate. What do I do to mitigate the effects of an existential crisis? Surf the internet until my eyeballs fall out.

While engaging in such rampant time murder, I came across a brief online article that repeatedly included sentences of the following form: “There are multiple companies out there, which secretly exploit starving puppies in third-world nations.”* So.

That/Which

That: I have some pants that are too big for me.

The that clause is called a restrictive clause. It modifies the preceding noun (in this case, pants) to specify certain boundary conditions (restrictions) that are important to the sentence’s meaning. Without this that clause, I just have some pants–which is true, but is not the point of this sentence.

Which: I gave some of my pants, which were too big for me, to Goodwill.

In this sentence, the point is that I gave some of my pants to Goodwill. It also happens that all of these pants that I gave to Goodwill were too big for me. For this reason, the “too big for me” clause is nonrestrictive. Nonrestrictive clauses are a type of nonessential element–a part of the sentence that you could leave out without changing the meaning of the sentence. For this reason, it is set off with commas.

The thing is, unless you’re a stickler prescriptivist, it doesn’t actually matter which word you use, because lots of very good professional writers just always use “which.” What does matter, in terms of meaning and understandability, is your comma usage. Unfortunately, that’s where MS Word’s too-smart-for-its-britches grammar check trips people up. I imagine the online article I came across was a victim of Word, which tells you to put a comma before “which” even if you’re using the clause restrictively. So to go back to my fake example, because it is set off with commas, the starving-puppies clause is nonrestrictive–in other words, that sentence means that all companies secretly exploit starving puppies in third-world nations.

Bottom line:

If you’re interested in using that/which “correctly”: use that where you don’t set off its clause with commas (i.e., in essential clauses), and which where you do (i.e., in nonessential clauses). If you have reasonably good comma usage, this rule of thumb will not fail you.

If you’re not that confident about your comma usage, but Word tells you that you need a comma before your “which,” don’t just blindly add the comma. Only set a phrase off with commas if it is giving you “extra” information about something else in the sentence.

* This is not an actual sentence from the article. Obviously.

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