That shark? Which shark? When to use "that" vs. "which."

It is often difficult to determine whether you should use "that" or "which" in a sentence.

For example, do you say, "The black and white shark that swam above his head," or do you say, "The black and white shark which swam above his head?"

Here are two tips to help you get it right:

1. Identify the clause.


THAT is a restrictive clause.


A defining or restrictive clause gives us very important information about the words that follow. If the details are essential (i.e. restricted), then we use the word "that."

"The shark that has a scratch on his belly swam past."
This identifies a specific shark in the aquarium exhibit. It implies that there are a number of sharks, but the one that swam past has a scratch on his belly (important, restrictive information).

WHICH is a non-restrictive clause.


Non-restrictive clauses, if removed, will not change the meaning of the sentence.
Think of it as adding non-specific information.

"The shark, which is a cartilaginous fish, swam above his head."
It is an interesting detail that a shark is a particular type of fish, but it doesn't alter the meaning of the sentence (a shark swam above his head).

2. Do you need to use commas?


Non-restrictive clauses (where we use the word "which") are usually preceded and/or followed by a comma.

"There is a leak in the stingray exhibit, which is causing water damage."
Should commas be necessary, use "which" and not "that."

Summary

  • THAT - Information following the clause is essential to the meaning of the sentence.
  • WHICH - The information can be excluded.
  • WHICH - Commas are required.

February 24, 2020
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Michelle Ainslie

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My name is Michelle and I am a native English speaker based in South Africa. I have multiple degrees and qualifications, including a Postgraduate Certificate in Education and a Masters degree in Creative Writing. In addition, my professional career has included many years of teaching, developing learning materials, as well as a high level of English writing and editing for corporate and media clients. All these certifications and years of experience are not what make me a good teacher, however. What sets me apart is that I am interested in the development of each and every one of my students and like to find the unique learning styles and personalities of each person, thus ensuring their individual success. For me the classroom is not just about learning grammar, but about growing each learner into the best person they can be. I love to focus on building on their strengths and teaching in a variety of different ways so that each person has a chance of succeeding to their best ability. I am not only qualified in English and Education, but also in Psychology. I have coached hundreds of clients and this is one of the reasons why I enjoy getting to know my students. I feel that my relationship with each one is the main reason I enjoy teaching and why I am a success in this field.
Flag
English
globe
South Africa
time
New!
Speaks:
English
Native
,
Afrikaans
C1
,
French
A1
My name is Michelle and I am a native English speaker based in South Africa. I have multiple degrees and qualifications, including a Postgraduate Certificate in Education and a Masters degree in Creative Writing. In addition, my professional career has included many years of teaching, developing learning materials, as well as a high level of English writing and editing for corporate and media clients. All these certifications and years of experience are not what make me a good teacher, however. What sets me apart is that I am interested in the development of each and every one of my students and like to find the unique learning styles and personalities of each person, thus ensuring their individual success. For me the classroom is not just about learning grammar, but about growing each learner into the best person they can be. I love to focus on building on their strengths and teaching in a variety of different ways so that each person has a chance of succeeding to their best ability. I am not only qualified in English and Education, but also in Psychology. I have coached hundreds of clients and this is one of the reasons why I enjoy getting to know my students. I feel that my relationship with each one is the main reason I enjoy teaching and why I am a success in this field.