Monday Morning Grammar

This morning I was editing a proposal for my company when Microsoft Word threw a green squiggly under my word “which.” The program was recommending I either add a comma or change the word to “that.”

As one of my goals this year was to develop better comma habits, I decided to investigate further. In doing so I found this great website: Grammar Girl.

In one particular article Grammar Girl describes the differences between “which” and “that.” While I’m sure many of you are all over this, I didn’t remember the rule. Not even a little bit. In the spirit of knowledge sharing here are the details:

That should be used with restrictive clauses. This means if your clause is essential for the understanding of the sentence use that.

Which should be used with non-restrictive clauses. This means if your clause is just a fun ornament attached to your sentence to add flavor throw in some commas around the clause and use which.

Seasonal Examples!

Turkey that is covered in gravy may require more reheating in the microwave.

See how the gravy is critical for the sentence? Use that.

Turkey, which tastes great with gravy, is an essential part of Thanksgiving meals.

Suddenly the gravy is no longer critical so we’ve switched to which and added some commas.


UPDATE: Check the comments for a link to a better discussion on that vs. which courtesy of Whitney.

6 thoughts on “Monday Morning Grammar

  • 11/28/2011 at 10:03 am

    Norton and Cobb must have lightened up by the time you took classes at WPI with them. Cobb would embarass anyone that would use “which” in a report and Norton would drop you a whole letter grade if you used it. They both told us that “which” has no place in any engineering report.

    • 11/28/2011 at 11:04 am

      Ha! I love this. I don’t think I ever had Cobb, and I must have just been lucky with Norton.

      Also, the phrase “which” has no place in engineering reports is a great grammatical memory tool.

  • 11/28/2011 at 10:25 am

    I disagree. Gravy is ALWAYS critical.

  • 11/28/2011 at 2:13 pm

    That may be an easy rule to remember, and one that satisfies MS Word, but it’s not how English has ever actually functioned. Like ending a sentence with a preposition, it’s just a rule some grammarian came up with. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage has a good entry on it.

    • 11/28/2011 at 2:34 pm

      For those too lazy to follow the link and read the Dictionary, the section wb001i is linking to states that throughout history the use of that and which has gone back and forth. For example, in the later 17th century, no one used that for either restrictive or non-restrictive clauses.

      The article does seem to some sort of conclusion stating:

      “You can use either which or that to introduce a restrictive clause – the grounds for your choice should be stylistic – and which to introduce a non-restrictive clause.”

      I think the true core of Whitney’s point here is less focused on these two words as much as the fact that the grammarians who come up with suggested “rules to follow” regularly change their interpretations of how to best use the English language. Perhaps instead of prefacing with the word rule, I should have used the phrase today’s cultural tendency.

      Thanks for the link Whitney! I will update my post.


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