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December 20th, 2006

"Which" vs. "that"

by Barbara Wallraff

Jean Damon, of McKinleyville, Calif., writes: “I never knew ‘which’ versus ‘that’ was a problem until my Microsoft Word grammar checker convicted me. I now feel that the rule about these words makes sense, but I notice that practically no other writers follow it.”

Dear Jean: Let me back up and state the rule, for the benefit of anyone who doesn’t know it. It is: Use “which” when introducing a new, separate thought, and set the thought off with commas. Use “that,” without commas, when presenting information that’s essential to the main thought. Examples: This newspaper, which possibly you subscribe to, carries my column. (If we deleted “which possibly ...,” you’d still know what newspaper I was talking about.) I’m grateful to all the newspapers that carry it. (If we deleted “that carry it,” I’d seem to be saying that I’m grateful to all newspapers -- but I’m not saying that.)

I follow the “which versus that” rule, and related rules about the use of commas, as strictly as I can. Signaling what’s essential information and what’s not just has to be helpful to readers. But to do it, I have to think about the meaning of the sentences I write. I also have to think about context. In a context like this, where I’ve already told you which newspaper I’m talking about, “the newspaper, which you’re holding in your hands,” is right. But if I needed to tell you which newspaper I mean, “the newspaper that you’re holding in your hands” would be right. What’s more, sometimes it’s anybody’s guess how to apply the rule. Consider “an alternative to a newspaper that’s widely read.” Is it the alternative or the newspaper that’s widely read? You won’t know for sure unless I revise the phrase to read either “a widely read alternative ...” or “... a widely read newspaper.” Because the rule can be tricky to apply, it’s hard to fault people who choose not even to try.

Well, if the rule doesn’t come naturally to us native-English-speaking people, asking a grammar checker to follow it is asking a lot. Word’s grammar checker is notoriously error-prone. Microsoft keeps tinkering with it and introducing new versions, which users can customize -- so what it flags will vary from computer to computer. But one constant is that the program cannot think, and it doesn’t understand context.

Nonetheless, it seems very sure of itself. And it uses terms, like “relative clause” and “passive voice,” that many people would have trouble defining -- so they may be inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt. But that means when the grammar checker misapplies one of these terms, not only is it going to give bad advice but also it’s likely to confuse users further about what the term really means.

I hope you, Jean, will keep making the distinction between “which” and “that” -- partly for the sake of paying attention to what you write and say, partly for the sake of your audience, and partly for the sake of the language itself. The more of us there are who make the distinction, the easier it will be for everyone else to catch on. Just don’t hold your breath waiting for the grammar checker to.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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