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That or Which? That Is the Question

Last updated 2 years ago

Should you use THAT or WHICH in the following sentence?
 
In his grandmother's attic, Jake found an old stool  (that/which) had three legs.
 
It you're not quite sure, join the crowd! Like many other troubling grammar issues, the choice between THAT and WHICH in this kind of clause is not always clear.

Here's the basic rule:
 - If the clause modifying the noun is needed to identify the noun, use THAT.
 - If the clause is not essential to the meaning, use WHICH, and set the clause off with commas.
 
The sentence above about Jake and the stool should be written with THAT: In his grandmother's attic, Jake found an old stool that had three legs.
 
Why? Because "had three legs" is essential information about the stool.
 
If you use WHICH, you have to separate the clause with a comma: In his grandmother's attic, Jake found an old stool, which had three legs.
This sentence doesn't make much sense.
 
Let's look at another example:                           
 Beth tried to be careful, but the taco sauce (that/which) was bright red dripped on her shirt.
 
Here, the choice depends on the meaning you want to convey:
 - If your point is that the sauce dripped on Beth's shirt, use WHICH—"the taco sauce, which was bright red, dripped on her shirt."
 - If your point is that the RED sauce—but not the green or any other sauce—dripped on Beth's shirt, use THAT—"the taco sauce that was bright red dripped on her shirt."
 
As you can see, this grammar point is far from simple. You can find more examples and details about it online.
 
If your child needs help with grammar issues, call The Literacy and Language Center at 415-242-1205 for more information about how we can help your child succeed.

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