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That vs. Which

The difference between the words — `that’ and `which’ — is rather subtle. Both are used to address a subject in a sentence. Since there is no exact distinction between the two, many choose to use them according to practice. Traditionally, however, there are some marked differences between the two.

The word `which’ (unlike `that’) — is a non-restrictive clause, often used in a more general sense — it does not limit or restrict the meaning of the subject it refers to in a sentence. Example: Dogs, which are also called “A man’s best friend”, are very faithful. While `which’ is followed by a comma, there is no comma usage following `that’ in a sentence.

Whereas, the word “that” is a restrictive clause with definite reference to the word preceding it in the sentence. Example: “The brown dog that was barking all night was the most dangerous of all.”

Although many feel using either of the words for any given context in a sentence is permissible, a wrong usage can completely alter the meaning of the sentence.

Consider the following: “Hardy’s house that is on the seaside is beautiful.”

Using `that’ as a restrictive clause in this sentence gives out a meaning that Hardy has many houses and the one that is close to the beach (only) is beautiful.  Here, `that’ has definite reference to the subject.

Whereas, “Hardy’s house, which is on the seaside, is beautiful.” The usage of `which’ in this sentence gives out a meaning that Hardy’s house is beautiful. So even if the non-restrictive `which’ is removed from this sentence, the essential meaning of the sentence is not lost: Hardy’s house, which is on the seaside, is beautiful.

Correct usage of the words `that’ and `which’ can add a lot of clarity to your sentence. However, if the subject in the sentence is a person or people, then the words `that’ or `which’ must be replaced by `who’ or `whom’.

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