“Grammar” is one of the most frustrating and complicated parts of any language. Almost all languages have it and demand its correct usage. Although with some languages, one can convey the intended meaning without the proper use of grammar when speaking, when it comes to writing it is an absolute necessity.
Why do we need grammar? One might ask. The answer would be that they help make the sentences coherent. Without proper grammar, the same sentence or paragraph might get interpreted with a different meaning than the one it was meant to convey. While grammars in language are a common phenomenon, English grammar has to be the most difficult to learn, especially if you are not a native speaker. It is even more difficult when your native language follows entirely different grammatical rules. The thing with English grammar is that it’s not enough to know how the placement of subject-verb agreement works. There is a vast array of rules associated with English grammar, for example, the different rules required for punctuation, when to use a comma, when to use a full-stop, their correct placement when dealing with a bracket, etc. Some other examples are not capitalizing the articles in sentence cases, the many different rules concerning tenses, and so on.
In this article, we will focus on one of the many complicated rules of the English language, specifically, the use of which and that. What they are, their functions in English grammar, how they are used, and how they differ from each other.
Which vs. That
The difference between “which” and “that” is not widely sought information. Many people may even use them interchangeably, specifically when used in clauses. They are adjectives but fall into two different categories, interrogative and demonstrative adjectives. They both function as pronouns by replacing nouns in sentences, but here also, just like with adjectives, they fall into two different but familiar categories, interrogative and demonstrative pronouns.
In addition to these differences, they serve different functions when used in clauses. Depending on the type of clause (restrictive or non-restrictive), only one of them is chosen to convey the intended meaning. When it is a restrictive clause, “that” is used, and the specific clause provides the required information to understand the sentence. When it is a non-restrictive clause, “which” is used, and the clause provides expendable information. Therefore, in this case, the particular clause is set off from the rest of the sentence by using commas.
Often, when there is confusion about which one to use, “that” or “which”, it is related to their usage in clauses, and not about their adjective or pronoun nature.
Difference Between Which and That in Tabular Form
|Parameters of comparison||Which||That|
|Type of adjective/ determiner||
|Type of pronoun||Interrogative||Demonstrative|
|Type of clause||Non-restrictive||Restrictive|
What is “Which”?
The word “which” can function as both an adjective and a pronoun. In both these cases it operates on the noun, either by modifying it or by replacing it. In addition, they are used in clauses, specifically, non-restrictive clauses to provide superfluous information.
“Which” as a demonstrative adjective
An adjective is used when you want to provide more information about a noun. Most often it is placed before a noun, but in some exceptional cases, it is placed after the noun. For example, when you want to convey the nature of a beautiful rose, you can say, “The beautiful roses in that garden,” or if you want to talk about the quality of a parrot, like, “that parrot is smart.” Here, the word beautiful is an adjective that describes the noun rose and the word smart modifies the noun parrot. Adjectives have many classifications. This article will focus on two categories of adjectives, demonstrative and interrogative.
“Which” is an interrogative adjective, and is used to turn a particular sentence into a question by modifying a noun.
Examples of “which” as an interrogative adjective:
- Which dish do you like more?
- Which actor won an award last night?
- Which book is yours?
- Which restaurant did you eat at yesterday?
- Which dress would you like to buy?
- Which friend are you taking to the movies?
“Which” as an interrogative Pronoun
Another role played by “which” is that of an interrogative pronoun. The term interrogative itself suggests the function performed - interrogation/ question. Interrogative pronouns like all pronouns are used to replace a noun. Interrogative pronouns can function either as an object or as a subject of the sentence. Chiefly, five interrogative pronouns are used, whom, whose, what, who, and which. They can be used in direct question sentences, reported questions and indirect questions. When “which” is used as an interrogative pronoun, it is not succeeded by a noun. This is how you can identify, if it is an interrogative pronoun or an interrogative adjective.
Examples of “which” as an interrogative pronoun:
- Which of these cars would you like to buy?
- Which of those fruits do you think are fresh?
- Which method of transportation would you like? A car or a train?
- Which of these flavours have you tried before?
- Which of those dogs do you think is cute?
- Which of these kites can fly the highest?
Clauses are a group of words. They contain both a subject and a predicate. Clauses are of two types, one which can function independently as a sentence (independent clause), and another that requires an independent clause to make a sentence (dependent clause). Dependent clauses contain the classification of relative clauses (adjective clauses). Relative clauses have two main functions, to help clarify which noun is being talked about and to provide extra information about the noun. Depending which of on these functions they serve, relative clauses are separated into two types: restrictive and non-restrictive. Non-restrictive clauses are also called non-defining clauses. These clauses provide information which is not required to get the intent of the sentence across.
While there are different kinds of pronouns, it is the relative pronoun that introduces a relative clause or an adjective clause. It helps to join the relative clause to the main clause. The different relative pronouns when talking about the subject case are, who, which, and that.
“Which” as a non-restrictive relative clause
A non-restrictive relative clause provides excess information about a noun. But whether this particular clause exists in the sentence or not, it can still get its intended meaning across. Because the information provided is easily expendable, they are separated from the rest of the clauses or sentences by commas.
Examples of “which” as a non-restrictive relative clause:
- F.R.I.E.N.D.S, which is my favourite comedy show, is being rebooted tomorrow.
- The bike that Shawn rode, which he just bought, is black.
- This lemon chicken, which I bought yesterday, is delicious.
- This book, which Betty brought over, is intriguing.
- My new laptop, which I bought last week, is incredibly fast.
- My new apartment, which I moved into two weeks ago, has three balconies.
If the clause containing “which” was removed from any of the above examples, the intended message of the sentences would still make it over. This is how one can find out if a clause is restrictive or non-restrictive.
What is “That”?
Just like “which”, “that” also functions as both an adjective and pronoun. In both these cases, the word is used to provide a description. Further, “that” is used in clauses, specifically, restrictive clauses, to provide essential information.
“That” as a demonstrative adjective
Just like “which”, “that” is also an adjective. Specifically, it is a demonstrative adjective. English grammar specifies four different demonstrative adjectives: those, these, this and that. A demonstrative adjective, like all adjectives, also modifies a noun. But they also serve some extra functions. When you are talking about things that are far away and you want to specify which one of them you are talking about, you use a demonstrative adjective. Further, demonstrative adjectives provide information to indicate whether the noun you are referring to is singular or plural. Since they help to determine nouns, they are also known as demonstrative determiners.
Examples of “that” as a demonstrative adjective:
- That bird is his favourite.
- Give that red car to me.
- The food we ate from that Chinese restaurant was delicious.
- The book that Kiara gave me was mind-blowing.
- That store is where I buy my groceries.
- That dog looks hungry.
“That” as a demonstrative pronoun
The ability of pronouns applies to demonstrative pronouns too. They can be used to replace a noun in any sentence. The different demonstrative pronouns are those, these, that and this. They are used to describe and provide more information about a specific noun in any sentence. These should not be confused with demonstrative adjectives. One way in which you can tell them apart is that, while a demonstrative adjective is used to modify a noun and describe its quality, a demonstrative pronoun can exist alone in a sentence.
Examples of “that” as a demonstrative pronoun:
- That is his favourite animal.
- That is my friend’s house.
- That is my friend Tal’s dog.
- That is my phone.
- That is my sister’s shoe.
“That” as a restrictive relative clause
Unlike a non-restrictive clause, the information provided by a restrictive clause is important to convey the actual message of the sentence. Restrictive clauses are also known as defining clauses.
A restrictive relative clause pinpoints a specific noun and provides necessary information. Without the restrictive clause, the intended meaning of the speaker would be lost. Since a restrictive clause is important to understand the sentence, it is not separated from the rest of the sentence by using any punctuation like a comma.
Examples of “That” as a relative restrictive clause:
- I was on the bus that fell over.
- I ate the fish that was in the refrigerator.
- The book that I finished yesterday had a tragic ending.
- The food that I cooked yesterday is in the refrigerator.
- The chair that she sat on was electric.
- The car that my dad gave me is old.
Main Differences Between “Which” and “That” in Points
- Even though both “which” and “that” are adjectives, one functions as a demonstrative adjective while the other functions as an interrogative adjective.
- As a demonstrative adjective, “that” is used to describe or specify the noun in question, while as an interrogative adjective “which” is used to modify the specific noun to ask a question.
- Both “which” and “that” are relative pronouns, which means that they are used to replace a pronoun, but “which” is an interrogative pronoun and “that” is a demonstrative pronoun.
- “Which” is an interrogative pronoun used to replace nouns in question sentences, while “that” is a demonstrative pronoun used to speak about something specific.
- “Which” is a non-restrictive relative clause and provides expendable information, while “that” is a restrictive relative clause and provides necessary information.
- Depending on the usefulness of the information provided in a clause, “which” is set off by commas, while “that” is not set off by punctuation marks.
In short, while “which” and “that” are both adjectives, they serve different functions. When used in sentences the interrogative adjective “which” turns the sentence into an interrogative one by modifying the noun. In contrast, the demonstrative adjective “that” helps to single out a specific noun you want to focus on, by modifying that particular noun. Similarly, which they both also function, as pronouns, one takes the place of the noun and turns it into a question, while the other, replaces the noun to provide description.
The situation where most people confuse and write “which” and “that” interchangeably is in clauses. Even though “which” and “that” can sometimes be replaced which each other when using clauses, the meaning of the sentence changes with each word. Luckily, there are some steps by which you can choose the correct word. One should always use “which” in non-restrictive clauses and set them off by the usage of commas. Moreover, one must make sure to use “that” in a restrictive clause and make sure there are no punctuation marks that can diminish the intent of the clause.
- Greenbaum, S., & Nelson, G. (20). An introduction to English grammar (3. ed., [Nachdr.]). Pearson / Longman.
- Herring, P. (2016). Complete English grammar rules. Createspace Independent Publishing Platform.
- Seaton, A., & Mew, Y. H. (2007). Basic English grammar. Book 1: For English language learners. Saddleback Educational Pub.