Maria Murnane

A former PR executive who abandoned a successful career to pursue a more fulfilling life, Maria Murnane is the best-selling author of the Waverly Bryson series (Perfect on Paper, It's a Waverly...

When to use THAT and when to use WHICH

When to use THAT and when to use WHICH

On May 30, 2017 | 0 Comments |  Grammar tips |

On the heels of my post about when to use “who” vs. “that,” today I thought I’d address an equally thorny differentiation: “that” vs. “which.”

Mind you, somehow I managed to receive a degree in English without learning the difference between “that” and “which,” so don’t feel bad if you have no clue. It wasn’t until I was in graduate school that my friend Debbie laid it out for me, clear as day.

Here’s what she said: If it sounds like you could use either, use “that.”

For example:

*Cooking is an activity that relaxes many people (CORRECT)

*Cooking is an activity which relaxes many people (INCORRECT)

In the above sentence, to the untrained ear it may sound like you could use either. So given Debbie’s justification, “that” would be the correct choice. And guess what? It is!

Wanting a more formal explanation for what Debbie had told me, shortly after our conversation I did some research, and here’s what I learned:

Essential clauses, which can’t be removed from a sentence without changing its basic meaning, require “that”:

*Cooking is something that I do all the time.

If you remove the essential clause above, you’ll be left with:


Nonessential clauses, which can be removed without altering the basic meaning of the sentence, require “which.” (Note: these type of clauses, such as the ones I’ve written above, are set apart with commas.)

*Cooking, which I love, is relaxing.

If you remove the nonessential clause above, you’ll be left with:


Got it? I know this is tricky, so if you’re more confused than ever, see if the clause in question is set apart by commas. That should help you figure it out!


More words that are easy to mix up
Posted September 24th 2018
More than once in the past few weeks I’ve heard the word “reactionary” used to describe someone who reacts or has reacted to so...

Marketing tip: Make it easy for...
Posted September 10th 2018
You never know when you’re going to meet someone who wants to buy your book, so it’s always smart to have a copy handy. But not...

Increase your productivity by wearing...
Posted August 27th 2018
There’s so much more that goes into being an “author” than just writing. There’s also rewriting, researching, editing, proofrea...

Challenge your characters
Posted August 13th 2018
My editor once told me that the way to write an interesting novel is to put a series of obstacles in front of the main characte...

How big is your digital footprint?
Posted July 30th 2018
If you want people to discover your books, you should do everything you can to make yourself easy to find online. I frequently ...

Refresher on who vs. whom
Posted July 16th 2018
I get that many (most?) people are convinced they’ll never understand the difference between “who” and “whom.” If you fall into...

Outline or no outline?
Posted July 2nd 2018
I recently completed a screenwriting program to learn how to adapt one of my novels for film. One night the instructor brought ...

More words that shouldn't be...
Posted June 18th 2018
In a recent post I explained that the seasons of the year should not be capitalized, nor should job titles that don’t come dire...

Examples of why it's better to "show"...
Posted June 14th 2018
Examples of why it's better to "show"; than "tell"; If you're still puzzled by the concept of show vs. tell, you're not alon...

Why it's good to avoid adverbs
Posted May 21st 2018
Why it's good to avoid adverbs One function of adverbs is to modify adjectives, in other wordsto describe something that alr...