Thursday, April 24, 2008

That versus Which

Another week, another editorial tip. And this week’s is about something that has driven editors crazy for years: that versus which. These two words have been abused, misused, and generally misrepresented in all types of writing. So let’s see if we can simplify things. Take a look at the example below.

  • The judge’s comment, which was very nasty and uncalled for, destroyed the contestant’s confidence.
  • But the next judge made a good comment that helped the contestant move to the next round.
What’s the difference between the two? It’s all about essential versus nonessential information, or in editorial speak, restrictive versus nonrestrictive clauses.

That tells us essential information is coming up, information that further defines an item to a specific category or definition. In our example, that shows the importance of the comment made by the judge. It’s not just a comment, it’s the kind of comment that helps contestants move to the next round. Notice the lack of commas. Restrictive clauses do not use commas.

Which, however, tells us nonessential information is coming, information that adds to or comments on an item that’s already identified. It does not further classify the item. In our example, which gives us additional information about the comment but could be taken out of the sentence without harm to the sentence. Notice the commas. Nonrestrictive clauses use commas.

So here’s our rule of thumb:
Determine the type of information—if it’s essential information, use that without any commas; if it’s nonessential, use which with commas. For more information, refer to The Chicago Manual of Style or a usage dictionary.


Janet Kay Jensen said...

Dear Editors:

Thank you! I'll keep that on file. Would anyone care to take on the following, which often confuse us?



Marcia Mickelson said...

Thanks for that post. That is good stuff and very helpful. I really enjoy your posts and find them very useful. I think we all do.

Rebecca Talley said...

I'm going to keep this info in a safe place.

The Editors said...

Oohhh...those are tricky.
Might/May probably more so. According to Chicago (5.202), "may" expresses what is possible, is factual, or could be factual. (I may have done that when I was younger, but I don't remember.)
"Might" suggests something that is uncertain, hypothetical, or contrary to fact. (We might win the lottery someday.) For the most part, if you've used past tense in the sentence, stick with "might." (He searched the car for candy that might have been left behind.)

The quick rule for who/that is "who" is used for people. (Then there's Jim, who has a tendency to stutter.) "That" is used for objects, things.

The problem with who/that is most people don't use the quick rule while speaking. So we hear it either way. (He's the man that sold me my car.) We suggest to stick with rule. It's just easier that way.