5 Cases of “Which”/“That” Confusion

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Perhaps you are confused by grammatical discussions of restrictive and nonrestrictive — or essential or nonessential — clauses. (I know I can never keep those terms straight.)

Never mind the nomenclature; when you’re editing your own writing, or someone else’s, simply read the phrase that follows a which (or who) or a that and determine whether the phrase that follows is parenthetical (it can be removed with no change of meaning to the sentence) or it is integral to the sentence. Here are five sample sentences followed by explanation of the problem and a revision.

1. “The inventor of the Etch A Sketch toy that generations of children drew on, shook up, and started over, has died in France, the toy’s maker said.”
The use of that to serve as a grammatical bridge between the name of the product and the phrase describing how it was used implies that more than one type of product called the Etch A Sketch exists; the one that children used as described is, according to this sentence construction, one of two or more types.

When that is replaced with which, and which is preceded by a comma, the sentence structure makes clear that the existence of other Etch A Sketch products is not implied: “The inventor of the Etch A Sketch toy, which generations of children have drawn on and shaken up before starting over, has died in France, the toy’s maker said.” (Note, too, that I have altered the wording explaining how the toy is used and have changed the tense to indicate that the product is extant.)

2. “It was a time when tensions were growing between the black and Jewish communities that had previously been aligned in efforts to affect social change.”
The point of this sentence is not what had occurred between certain communities of black and Jewish people, but what the entire black and Jewish communities had experienced. The restrictive force of that must be replaced by the parenthetical purpose of a comma followed by which: “It was a time when tensions were growing between the black and Jewish communities, which had previously been aligned in efforts to affect social change.”

3. “Police are probing allegations of incidents involving the renowned astrophysicist who is paralyzed.”
The phrase “the renowned astrophysicist who is paralyzed” distractingly refers to the concept of astrophysicists who are not paralyzed. However, “who is paralyzed” is merely additional information appended to the factual statement, and should be attached with a comma followed by who (the equivalent of which): “Police are probing allegations of incidents involving the renowned astrophysicist, who is paralyzed.”

4. “The company’s incident-response team can quickly and reliably identify events, which threaten an organization’s security posture.”
Here and in the example below, the problem in the previous sentence is reversed: This statement implies that all events are threatening. Replacing the comma and which with that corrects that impression by restricting the meaning to refer specifically to threatening events: “The company’s incident-response team can quickly and reliably identify events that threaten an organization’s security posture.”

5. “The court ruled this week that a law passed last summer, which gave five top government-office holders immunity from prosecution, was illegal and must be revoked.”
This sentence construction suggests that the summer, rather than the law, granted immunity. Removal of the bracketing commas and replacement of which with that integrates the central point into the framing sentence: “The court ruled this week that a law passed last summer that gave five top government-office holders immunity from prosecution is illegal and must be revoked.”

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17 thoughts on “5 Cases of “Which”/“That” Confusion”

  1. As far as the “which or that” question I tend simply to go for what sounds and feels right. An alternative in some cases is to leave “that/which” out altogether or reword the sentence.

    eg “the house that Jack built” becomes “the house Jack built”

    Example 3 might be “Police are probing allegations of incidents involving the renowned paralyzed astrophysicist.” (although I am not sure which adjective should come first.)

    No 2 could be
    “It was a time when tensions were growing between the black and Jewish communities, previously aligned in efforts to affect social change.”

  2. NOTE: The version of this article that was distributed by mass e-mail does not contain a byline – hence when we read that version, we have no idea who “I” is. I will use an old word from the Southern dialect of English to describe this: That is a “quare” situation, where “quare” means “odd, unusual, or quaint”.

    I do wonder why someone has done this to Mark Nichol and the rest.

  3. This is a very nice article that explains a lot of things in good ways.
    Thank you. Abolutely the sentence should have been phrased to show that the “Etch A Sketch” is still in existence, and it is still produced and sold. The verb “was” – in the past tense – was completely incorrect.
    However, look at this part:
    “The inventor of the Etch A Sketch toy, which generations of children have drawn on and shaken up before starting over, has died in France, the toy’s maker said.” (Note, too, that I have altered the wording explaining how the toy is used and have changed the tense to indicate that the product is extant.)

    1. The name “Etch A Sketch” should be in quotation marks because it is not a term that is universally known. In other words, the trademark “Etch A Sketch” is not well-known the way that the following ones are: {General Motors, Rolls Royce, General Electric, American Airlines, AT&T, Air France, BBC, BMW, British Air, The Boeing Company, Delta Air Lines, Ford Motors, Holiday Inn, Hilton Hotel, INTEL, Japan Airlines, Mercedes Benz, Nortel, Pullman, QANTAS, RCA, Saab, Shell Oil, Siemens, SONY, Texas Instruments, Toyota, Univac, Volkswagen, Volvo, Walkman, Western Electric, and Airbus Industries}
    Note that I have deliberately included internationally-known companies not just from the U.S.A., but ones from Australia, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Holland, Japan, and Sweden, and a multinational one from Europe (Airbus).

    2. The “Etch A Sketch” is not necessarily a “toy” for children, but rather it has been an instrument that adults have done serious art work on. When finished, the pictures are photographed. I have seen these, and haven’t you?

    3. Write “have drawn on and THEN shaken up and started over”, with the “then” being absolutely required. “Have drawn on and shaken up” states that these two actions are done simultaneously.
    No fooling. I have read in a different column on the correct use of English about the writers complain that so many people say or write “and” when they really mean “and then”. (I realize that sometimes the omission of “then” is idiomatic, but it is not logical.)
    “He bought the necktie and forgot to wear it,” really should be stated “He bought the necktie and then forgot to wear it,” and this is how he ended tieless at the state dinner for Queen Elizabeth at the White House!

    I have read that back before 1960, there was an English textbook that had this example sentence, “She took the pill and went to bed.”
    This one falls into the category of “My, my, how the language has changed,” because “took the pill” and “went to bed” have gained different meanings – especially when you put the two phrases together.

    4. “I have altered the wording explaining how the toy is used and have changed the tense to indicate that the product is extant,” needs to be stated as “I have altered the wording explaining how the toy is used, and I have changed the tense to indicate that the product is extant.” Otherwise, “have changed the tense to indicate that the product is extant,” seems to be dangling without a subject. WHY NOT give it an explicit subject to improve its clarity and readability?

  4. @Mary Hodges: “As far as the ‘which or that’ question I tend simply to go for what sounds and feels right,” is NOT a sufficent reason.
    That is usually not a sufficent reason to do anything in English because our language has strong features of LOGIC in it. You and other people need to understand and use the logic behind everything that you write or say. (The exceptions are that some things are purely idiomatic, and they cannot be explaned by logical reasoning.) Doing anything else is poor reasoning.

    In my case, I was raised by my mother who was an excellent high school English teacher, and everything that she said or wrote was logical. Therefore, all of the above was engraved into my brain from an early age. (There are “stone tablets” up there, LOL.) Sometimes, Mother even got assigned to teach junior high school math or social studies, too, and my father taught high school math (usually the remedial kind) occassionally – before he became a school administrator – assistant professional, professional, and then college administrator.

    In junior high school and high school, I had some English teachers who were very logical and correct in the language, but some who were really fruitcakes – and I did not pay too much attention to the latter. I had excellent English teachers in the 7th, 8th, and 12th grades, and for half of the 11th grade – and as for the others, I don’t usually remember their names. As for the completely crazy one for half of the 11th grade, I remember her, and my father told me that he would have fired her or found some other way to get rid of her. (He used to be a principal, so he knew how.) I don’t remember his saying this about ANY of my other teachers – because with his being a professional and knowledgeable educator, he usually backed up the school system.

    The name of my 12th grade English teacher was Anne B. Costen, and she found a lot of amusement that her initials were A.B.C. Wow!
    (It would be very difficult to find a math teacher with the initials X.Y.Z., as appropriate as those would be.)

    My father has told me of the time (in the 1960s) when the father of one of his female students showed up at school with a shotgun with the intent of shooting a (woman) teacher who had been very cruel to his daughter. Dad was able to defuze the situation, including with the promise to get rid of that teacher, and another promise to command that teacher NOT to lay her hands on any student whatsoever again. Dad carried through with all of his promises, and that teacher was gone at the end of the school year, never to return.
    A sad thing about it is that later on in the calendar year, that teacher died of a brain tumor. This makes me wonder if her violent behavior had been caused by the undiagnosed brain tumor, which was discovered later. (Remember that in the 1960s, there was no such thing as a a CAT scan or an magnetic resonance imaging scan. Those things were not invented until decades later.)
    I am telling you this to show you that Dad had experience in dealing with the very worst of teachers. So, when he complained about one, it really meant something.

  5. Last night on the TONIGHT Show in North America, Jay Leno showed a newspaper article with the title line that says:

    “Law passed to deal with those who pass bad Czechs”

    Can you believe this? I find this to be very, very strange – spell-checker or no spell-checker, people should know the difference between check, Czech, and even this word spelled the British way: cheque or checque.
    The American-made spell-checker in Yahoo e-mail does not recognize either “cheque” or “checque”, and it makes lots of suggestions for changes, including “cheek”, but it does not suggest “Czech”. Some other spell-checkers might do so.

    I also saw a case recently in which someone wrote “Chek” instead of “Czech”, and this happened not just once, but several times within a few paragraphs.

  6. @Dale A. Wood
    Perhaps the people who “pass bad Czechs” allow illegal immigrants from the Czech republic to enter the United States?

  7. THANK YOU, Mr. Nichol, for writing “paralyzed”. This really is a column on American English. Canadian English is generally the same in spelling, etc., though there are exceptions such as “honour”, “labour”, and “neighbour”.
    However, note that the “Australian Labor Party” is spelled in exactly this way. This is the party’s official name, and it was created in the 1890s.

    Writers from Britain, Ireland, and some other countries (Australia and New Zealand?) insist on writing “paralysed”, despite the fact that “z” has a different, stonger sound.

    The same is true for “words” like these { analyze, analyzer, autolyze, catalyze, catalyzer, dialyze, electolyze, electrolyzer, hydrolyze, hydrolyzer, photolyze }. I used a very good Web site that searches its (large) database for words with given specifications, such as “words containing lyze”. You can search for words ending in a certain way, such as “wright”, or words containing a certain string of letters in then, such as “shl”. Sometimes you will get some compound words in which this combination is a sheer accident, such as “flashlight”, but you can ignore those if you want to.

    Note that if you search for words containing “ase”, you will get a list of hundreds, but these will include { laser, maser, phaser, taser }. If you search for “aze”, you will get a different list that includes { blaze, daze, faze, graze, haze, laze, maze, raze } and so forth.
    I recently searched for a list of words that end in the suffix “man”, and the Web site gave me 500 of them! Very interesting. I also noticed some that had been omitted, such as {Englishman Englishwoman, Frenchman, Frenchwoman, Irishman, Irishwoman, Scotsman, Scotswoman, Welshman, Welshwoman}. These were not deliberate omissions because “Dutchman” and “German” were there. Hence, proper nouns and adjectives were not left out on purpose.

    I wrote to the author to ask that all of these words be added to his database.


  8. @Mary Hodges: NO. The article was specifically one on monetary laws.

    Passing bad checks is a serious crime in most States and Canadian Provinces, though the seriousness can depend on the amount on the check. The crime can be either a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the amount and the number of bad checks written and passed.

  9. @Mary Hodges

    Mary, I believe, that the order of adjectives in your sentence needs be reversed, so that it is “paralyzed renowned astrophysicist” instead. I think that a reader knows that astrophysicist as a renowned researcher who, presumably recently, was paralyzed, rather than as having been paralyzed in the first place and considered a renowned figure afterwards.

    Nevertheless, it could also be the other way around. He could probably unearth something ground-breaking while paralyzed to be referred to and remembered as ‘the renowned paralyzed astrophysicist’. 🙂

    One more point, now regarding your feel for a suitable use of either ‘which’ or ‘that’. Granted that you are a well-read person, out of what this knack of a shrewd choice is nurtured, you might have encountered numerous erroneous examples of relative pronouns, hence justified erring on the side of proofreading.

    Your example “the house (that) Jack built”, when seen in a broader context, might call for rethinking of the use of ‘that’ or omitting it altogether. (As far as I know, ‘that’ can be left out, while ‘which’ should be always in the sentence). Consider your example sentence in these two different contexts:

    1. Every time I come back to this place and look around I think of the house (that) Jack built. (exactly and exclusively that house and not any other)

    2. Slanting verdured patches of countryside enwrapped the houses of the Smiths and the Woods. Skilled craftsmen, Jack Smith and Robin Wood, took pride in their dwellings; their erection marked the beginning of the new settlement, the new dynasty. To the left of the Scroll hovered the building where the Smiths would lay the foundations of their familial business. The house, which Jack had built himself, manifested the diligence and craft of its creator. … (it can be understood from the context that it is Jack Smith’s house, not Robin Wood’s, therefore, it adds no significant information)

    And I also beg your pardon for such a lengthy context introduction in the second example; I hope it was justifiable.

    In the second example, however, I believe, that if the author wants to make an emphasis on Jack’s singlehandedness in his house’s construction, then ‘that’ is also permissible.

  10. Also, to be on the safe side, I apologize, if in my previous post I addressed some of the questions that had already been discussed before.

    I started typing a comment right before I had to leave for the conferment of honorary degree on Dr. Prof. Eric von Hippel.

    An extraordinary person with a good sense of humor. 🙂


  11. @D.A.W. Is there really any difference in sound between the S in advertise, advise and chastise, all spelt with an S in both American and British English, and the Z in analyze, breathalyze and paralyze (or as I would normally write – analyse, breathalyse and paralyse)? Here are IPA renderings of two of them from Merriam-Webster – (\ˈad-vər-ˌtīz\) and \ˈa-nə-ˌlīz\ – I don’t see any difference there.

    Oxford English recognises three kinds of verb with the same phonetic ending: -ise (advise), -ize (organize) and -yse (paralyse). I believe they base the different spellings purely on etymology – in advertise and paralyse the ise/yse is not a suffix but an integral part of the stem, which was spelt with an S an its original French, Latin or Greek. Verbs like organize (or organise non-Oxford BrE), on the other hand, are based on the Latin suffix -izare, which itself came from the Greek -izein.

    It seems that American English is etymologically closer to the original for -ize verbs such as organize, but that British
    English is etymologically closer for the -yse verbs like analyse.

    If you want to have it purely based on sound, then in the US you’d need to change verbs like advise to advize. For those of us who use -ise – recognise, etc, all these verbs have both the same sound and the same spelling – advise, realise, analyse, but we lose the etymological connection for -ize verbs. Each system has its pros and cons.

  12. In example No. 2, shouldn’t “affect social change” be changed to “effect social change”?

  13. Nelson:

    Thanks for pointing out that error, which I inadvertently retained from the source material. Sometimes, when I copy and past a sentence from my editing projects or from my leisure reading to use as an example for a post, I neglect to fix an error unrelated to the post topic.

  14. @Nelson Carter @thebluebird11 Thank you, thank you! It immediately hit me between the eyes and I was so surprised that nobody was commenting on that, but I kept on till the end of the comments before being hasty in commenting myself.

    Being a native speaker of Spanish (and not only native but speaking it currently every day as I live in South America) it never ceases to amaze me how native English speakers incur in this type of mistake. This would never occur in Spanish, maybe because in English the difference lies in just one character, the initial “e” or “a”, whereas in Spanish both words are slightly different and make confusion all but impossible: “to effect” is “efectuar”, whereas “to affect” is “afectar”. And in conjugation, the difference deepens. For instance, “he effects” is “él efectúa”, whereas “he affects” is “él afecta”.

  15. Mark,
    Always troubling for me these two words, and obviously it troubles others from the comments. I appreciate your insights and clarifications.

    Darin L. Hammond

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