Seb from Inverness sent in a question over when to use that and when to use which. I know this is something that vexes many writers, so hope the answer helps.
Seb says: I’m not a novice writer by any means, but I can never decide what the rule is over that and which. Is there a simple way to remember?
Okay, the basic rule is this: if the sentence doesn’t need the clause (it makes sense without) you use which. If the sentence does need the clause you use that.
The car, which is green, has a manual gearbox.
The car that is green has a manual gearbox.
The two sentences look identical at first, but the meanings are not the same.
The car, which is green, has a manual gearbox. This tells us there is only one car and it has a manual gearbox. The clause (the words inside the two commas) isn’t necessary to illustrate the meaning. It is additional information and doesn’t affect the fact there is only one car and it has a manual gearbox.
The car that is green has a manual gearbox. This sentence suggests there is more than one car, but it is the car that is green that has the manual gearbox. The phrase ‘that is green’ is necessary to show clearly, of all the cars on the forecourt, it is the green one that has the manual gearbox.
The proper phrase for it is a restrictive clause because another part of the sentence depends on it. You can’t remove that clause (that is green) without changing the meaning of the sentence.
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