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‘That’ or ‘Which’? Rules to decide

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“That” is used with restrictive clauses. A restrictive clause is a part of a sentence you can’t get rid of without changing the overall meaning. Example: “Weather that is warm is my favorite” contains the restrictive clause “that is warm.” If you remove “that is warm” the sentence would be declaring that any and all weather is your favorite.

Restrictive clauses don’t have commas around them. When you use “that” in a restrictive clause as in the previous example, there is no need for commas around the phrase.

“Which” is used with non­restrictive clauses. Non-restrictive clauses can be removed from a sentence without changing its intent. Example: “Paper towels, which are good for cleaning, are available in most stores.” The nonrestrictive clause “which are good for cleaning” could be removed from the sentence without changing the meaning that paper towels are available in stores.

Nonrestrictive clauses are surrounded by commas. Notice that there are commas around “which are good for cleaning.” The commas show the phrase is an aside—it adds some context but isn’t necessary to the overall meaning.

“That” is necessary; “which” is optional. Do a quick test in your head: If the phrase is needed for the sentence’s meaning, use “that.” If you could toss out the phrase and the sentence still means the same thing, use “which.”

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