If you're struggling to decide whether which or that is the correct word in your sentence, there's an easy way to decide. Take a look at several explanations and examples of which vs. that to help you figure out their differences. When you're ready, you can take a quick quiz to test your knowledge.
Which and that are both relative pronouns that connect a clause or phrase to a noun or pronoun (usually an object or an animal). However, they function in slightly different ways. Which identifies a noun in a non-essential way, while that identifies a noun in an essential way.
|Word||What Does It Do?||Example|
The dog, which I've complained about before, barked all night.
|that||clarifies what noun you're talking about|
The dog that barks all night kept me awake.
In the first example, the non-essential phrase "which I've complained about before" adds extra information about the dog. In the second example, the essential phrase "that barks all night" makes it clear which dog you're talking about.
Which is non-essential (also known as non-defining or nonrestrictive) because it adds information rather than limiting it. If you leave a non-essential item 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. For example:
- Soybean baby foods, which are Sally’s favorite, work well for her diet.
- He brought my favorite flowers, which are lilies.
- I didn't want to talk about math class (which I'm failing).
An essential element is a word, phrase or clause that changes the meaning of the sentence. That is considered an essential element because it defines the noun or pronoun that it follows. For example:
- Baby foods that contain soybeans are best.
- He went to the florist shop that sells my favorite flowers.
- The class that I really dread is math.
Take a quick which vs. that quiz to see if you grasp the concept. Choose the correct word from the parentheses for each sentence 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.
If you want to use the quiz in a classroom setting or to take it without the temptation of looking at the answers, you can print the which vs. that quiz in PDF format below.
Check out the answers to the quiz and 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.)
Knowing whether to use which or that in a sentence doesn't need to be confusing. The information that comes after which adds extra information, while a phrase that starts with that identifies the noun you're talking about. Now that you've figured out which and that, learn when to use who.