Word Showdown: That vs. Which

Today we’re starting a new series, Word Showdown, in which we will explore the correct usage of words that often get confused. Today’s topic: that vs. which.

This set of words confounds many people. In fact, it is an issue we correct in nearly every project we work on. While many folks have the impression that which is just a fancier version of that, the two words actually have very different purposes that affect a sentence’s meaning.


On the left side of the ring, we have that. On the right, we have which

That is used with what are known as “restrictive clauses.” If you remove a restrictive clause from the sentence, you’ll change the sentence’s meaning.

Phones that send GIFs are so much fun!

In the above example, you cannot remove any part of the sentence and keep its intended meaning. For instance if you instead said, “Phones are so much fun!” you’d be leaving out the author’s point about the phones’ ability to send GIFs.

Which, on the other hand, is used with “nonrestrictive clauses.” You guessed it—if you remove a nonrestrictive clause, the meaning does not change. Which is often set off by commas to clue you in.

Cell phones, which are portable, are good for emergencies.

In this example, you can easily take out the bit between the commas, and the sentence still makes sense.

Nonrestrictive clauses can occur at the end of a sentence too:

My dog sat on my phone and broke the screen, which makes me so mad!

Clearly this example is more emotive and descriptive than if you cut the text after the comma, but it would still make sense.

So let’s test your newfound skills!

Which is correct?

A. Ale-8, which is bottled only in Kentucky, is an awesome regional soda.

B. Ale-8 that is bottled only in Kentucky is an awesome regional soda.


[insert Jeopardy! music]


Option A is correct, because Ale-8 is only bottled in Kentucky. Because all Ale-8 comes from Kentucky, the nonrestrictive clause could be removed, making the sentence:

Ale-8 is an awesome regional soda.

This keeps the intended meaning of the original sentence, just with less description.

Option B, on the other hand, implies that Ale-8 is also bottled somewhere other than Kentucky.

If you need more help with that vs. which, check out these awesome resources as well: Grammar Girl, Writer’s Digest, and The Grammarist.

In the meantime—keep your dog away from your phone and relax with an Ale-8.

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