Tuesday, August 17, 2010

That vs. Which: Think BTW

Nathan writes:
Dear Snarky,
Please take a look at this sentence:
I'm rooting for the football team which is wearing the red jerseys. Should I say 'that is wearing' or 'which is wearing'?
Thanks for bringing this up! So many people have trouble with that vs. which, and this is a great example. In this case, you should say 'that is wearing.'

Where does Nathan go wrong? He used which to begin an essential clause, when he needed that.

Quick rules:
  • Use that to introduce an essential clause. That means it identifies the noun for the first time and can't be removed without changing the meaning of the sentence.
  • Use which to introduce a non-essential clause. It may add detail, but it isn't crucial to identifying the noun. You can leave it out, and the sentence will be intact, albeit with less information.
    Try this: Imagine inserting the phrase 'by the way' after every which. The big, brass bell, which (by the way) is broken, is in the belfry.
  • Use a comma to separate phrases with which from the rest of the sentence. If it feels like you need a comma, you probably need which.
  • Stinker alert: Use which to introduce an essential clause if you've already used that previously in the same sentence. That is a dilemma which we can't solve right now.

Let's take another look at Nathan's sentence:
I'm rooting for the football team which is wearing the red jerseys.
How does Nathan identify his team? He is singling out the team in the red jerseys. He wouldn't say "I'm rooting for the football team, which (by the way) is wearing the red jerseys," because the fact that they are wearing the red jerseys is essential.

Correction: I'm rooting for the football team that is wearing the red jerseys.


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