‘That’ or ‘which’?

Do you sometimes wonder whether to use that or which in a sentence? In many cases, in British English, both words are equally correct.

√ She held out the hand which was hurt.

√ She held out the hand that was hurt.

In these sentences, that and which are introducing what’s known as a restrictive relative clause. This is a clause containing essential information about the noun that comes before it. If you leave out this type of clause, the meaning of the sentence is affected – indeed, it will probably not make much sense at all. Restrictive relative clauses can be introduced by that, which, whose, who, or whom.

The other type of relative clause is known as a non-restrictive relative clause. This kind of clause contains extra information that could be left out of the sentence without affecting the meaning or structure. Non-restrictive clauses can be introduced by which, whose, who, or whom, but you should never use that to introduce them. For example:

A list of contents would have made it easier to steer through the book, which also lacks a map.

She held out her hand, which Rob shook.

Note that a non-restrictive clause is preceded by a comma (so as to set off the extra information), whereas no comma should precede a restrictive clause (indicating that the information is essential, not extra):

I bought a new dress, which I will be wearing to Jo's party. [non-restrictive]

I was wearing the dress that I bought to wear to Jo's party. [restrictive]


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