Editing for Grammarphobes 2.0: That Versus Which


Every Wednesday, Editing for Grammarphobes 2.0 features handy tips to enhance all of our writing, from daily emails to articles to books. After all, everyone needs to write, right?

Recently, I went to a mini-reunion of college friends, one of whom I hadn’t seen in more than thirty years. Three of us, all English majors, work in publishing and have been lucky enough to do so for many years. 

We either are editors presently or have been at one point or another, so I couldn’t resist asking what grammar pet peeves drive them crazy. Typical to my one friend, she had a few minor irritations, but nothing irked her too much. 

For my other friend, it was quite different. 

“That or which. My god, it drives me crazy. Just learn the rule, memorize it, and be done with it.”

For the sanity of my dear English major friends and editors everywhere, here is the rule for that versus which in American prose.

That vs. Which

According to the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS), both that and which are relative pronouns. 

“In polished American prose, that is used restrictively to narrow a category or identify a particular item being talked about.” A restrictive clause is a part of the sentence that you cannot get rid of for the sentence to make sense.

The example given by CMS is the following sentence.

“Any building that is taller must be outside the state.”

Removing "that is taller" doesn't make any sense, right?

Which is used nonrestrictively, meaning “not to narrow a class or identify a particular item, but to add something about an item already identified.” A nonrestrictive clause can be left out without changing the meaning of the sentence.

CMS offers this example. 

“Alongside the officer trotted a toy poodle, which is hardly a typical police dog.”

The toy poodle can still trot alongside the officer without the added opinion it's not the typical police dog.

CMS goes on to state which “should be used restrictively only when it is preceded by a preposition. Otherwise, it is almost always preceded by a comma, a parenthesis, or a dash.” 

Here's a graphic I found to illustrate these points.

Graphic courtesy of SlidePlayer.com.

But, remember when you're reading your favorite British novel, British English seldom distinguishes between that and which. 

Bookmark page 298 of the Chicago Manual of Style and refer back to it often. 

Editors everywhere will thank you.

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The Chicago Manual of Style


A professional writer/editor for almost 30 years, Karen Wojcik Berner's wide and varied experience includes such topics as grammar, blog content, book reviews, corporate communications, the arts, paint and coatings, real estate, the fire service, writing and literature, research, and publishing. An award-winning journalist, her work has appeared in several magazines, newspapers, and blogs, including the Chicago Tribune, Writer Unboxed, Women's Fiction Writers, Naperville Magazine, and Fresh Fiction. She also is the author of three contemporary women's fiction novels and is a member of the Chicago Writers’ Association. For more information on Karen, please visit www.karenberner.com.


Anonymous said…
I'll have to refer to this post often. :)

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