When to use “which” or “that” is one of the most confusing grammar lessons ever taught. The fact that the two words are considered practically interchangeable in modern English does not make learning the distinction between them easier. You could sit through four years of English classes and still not fully understand when to use “which” or “that.” These explanations and examples should help you gain a basic understanding of when to use the right word. Then take the quiz to test your knowledge.
Which vs. That Quiz: When to Use the Right Word
Restrictive and Nonrestrictive Elements
To understand the which vs. that debate, you first need to understand the parts, or elements, of a sentence. There are restrictive and nonrestrictive elements in sentences. Keep these two definitions in the back of your mind, because they will be crucial in understanding when to use “which” or “that.”
A restrictive element is a word, phrase or a clause that manages to limit the meaning of the sentence element it modifies. When a restrictive element is not included, then the entire meaning of the sentence will change.
A nonrestrictive element is a word, phrase or a clause that provides extra information about a part of a sentence without limiting the meaning of that part of the sentence.
"That" Is Restrictive
The word “that” is considered a restrictive element of any sentence it’s used in. So, “that” limits the meaning of the sentence element it modifies.
For example, look at this sentence:
- Baby foods that contain soybeans are best.
The restrictive element of the sentence are the words “that contain soybeans.” These words limit the type of baby food that is being discussed. Without the phrase “that contain soybeans,” the whole sentence meaning would be altered. In fact, there would be no restrictive element of the baby food. Instead, the sentence would imply that all baby food is best.
"Which" Is Nonrestrictive
“Which” is nonrestrictive, because it adds information rather than limiting it. If a nonrestrictive item is left out of a sentence, it won’t change the overall meaning of the sentence. You can usually recognize a nonrestrictive element because it is surrounded by commas or parentheses.
Here is an example of how a nonrestrictive element with the word “which” should be used:
- Soybean baby foods, which are Sally’s favorite, work well for her diet.
If you take out the phrase “which are Sally’s favorite,” you still understand that soybean baby foods work for Sally.
Which vs. That Quiz
Can you see the difference between how “that” (a restrictive element) and “which” (a nonrestrictive element) work in a sentence? Take this quick which vs. that quiz to see if you grasp the concept. Choose whether to use “which” or “that” and check your answers below.
- She showed the leg (which/that) was injured.
- The shirt was my favorite color, (which/that) is blue.
- The book (which/that) covers soil erosion is boring.
- The magazine I read at lunch, (which/that) had pictures of goats, reminded me to grab goat cheese.
- A map would have made it easier to get to the city, (which/that) was far away.
- They chose the rental car (which/that) had Florida plates.
- My phone (which/that) connects to my email is most useful.
- Chairs (which/that) don’t have a back are my least favorite.
- My TV, (which/that) I have always hated, is really small.
- The cat (which/that) has a white stripe always swats at visitors.
Answers to Which vs. That Quiz
Check out the answers to the which vs. that quiz. Read the explanations to better understand why “which” or “that” is correct.
- She showed the leg that was injured.
(You need the phrase “that was injured” to understand the statement. It also indicates a specific thing you’re indicating.)
- The shirt was my favorite color, which is blue.
(Knowing the color of the shirt is extra information.)
- The book that covers soil erosion is boring.
(You need the phrase “that covers soil erosion” to know what book is being discussed.)
- The magazine I read at lunch, which had pictures of goats, reminded me to grab goat cheese.
(Knowing the specific part of the magazine that served as a reminder is extra information.)
- A map would have made it easier to get to the city, which was far away.
(The distance of the city is extra information.)
- They chose the rental car that had Florida plates.
(You need the phrase following “that” to understand which car they chose.)
- My phone that connects to my email is most useful.
(You need the phrase following “that” to understand which phone is being discussed.)
- Chairs that don’t have a back are my least favorite.
(You need the phrase following “that” to know which chairs the person dislikes most.)
- My TV, which I have always hated, is really small.
(The fact that you hate the TV is extra information.)
- The cat that has a white stripe always swats at visitors.
(You need the phrase following “that” to know which cat is meant.)