The Editor’s Which Hunt

When trying to decide whether to use that or which, many writers opt for which. Why? Probably because it feels safer for them when they’re not sure which word to use.

Luckily for the writer it’s the editor’s job to hunt down all of the whiches and check to see if they should be replaced with that.

But how does the writer, and the editor for that matter, work out which word is best? Below we will look at some examples of that versus which usage.

That is used to start a restrictive phrase; a restrictive phrase being a phrase that defines items of a particular category. It needs to tell the reader which items of the category it is referring to. Usually no comma is needed before that.

Which is used to start a nonrestrictive phrase; a non-restrictive phrase being a phrase that does not need to define items within a category. It tells the reader that there is only one item in that category, so no distinction is needed. It usually supplies some additional information about the item. Generally a comma is needed before which.

Below are some examples of that and which usage:

  • Here is the movie I borrowed from you that had heaps of action. (Restrictive: indicates the particular movie.)
  • Here is the movie I borrowed from you, which had heaps of action. (Nonrestrictive: ‘which had heaps of action’ could be deleted and the sentence would still work.)
  • The red car that was parked in the garage was stolen. (Restrictive: indicates the particular car.
  • The red car, which was parked in the garage, was stolen. (Nonrestrictive: ‘which was parked in the garage’ could be deleted and the sentence would still work.)

If the subject is or was a human being, use who (or whom) to introduce the phrase.

Some easy ways to remember which words to use:

  • If you can tell which item the sentence is talking about without using that or which, then which is probably the word you need. But if you can’t tell which item is being talked about, then use that.
  • If you remove the nonrestrictive phrase and the sentence still makes sense, which is probably correct.

Some say that it’s fine to use which in a restrictive phrase as long as you don’t include the commas, and yet some say otherwise. In this instance it’s best to stick to your preferred style guide or publisher’s guidelines.

And as the editor hunts down the last of the elusive thats and whiches, the restrictive and nonrestrictive phrases will continue to wreak havoc with as many writers as possible. So when in doubt, leave it out (i.e. remove the nonrestrictive phrase to see if the sentence still makes sense).


Kristy Taylor is a syndicated freelance journalist with articles and short stories strewn across all forms of media. She has written and published numerous books, and is the executive editor of KT Publishing, which encompasses several web sites. For free listings of short story competitions visit http://www.shortstorycompetitions.com

To contact Kristy, email her at mail@kristytaylor.com


This piece may NOT be freely reprinted. Please contact editor @ howtotellagreatstory.com for reprint rights.

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