That vs. which

That and which have become interchangeable in certain aspects of their use. Take the sentence below.

We have overtaken the car that/which was holding us up.

Either is fine. Traditionalists, and those over 60, will default to using which. But many style guides have moved to endorse that.

My preferred style is to use that. My loose rule: which follows a comma, that does not. Take the two sentences below.

We have overtaken the car that was holding us up.

We have overtaken the car, which was holding us up.

While the two sentences are pretty similar in their sense and meaning, there’s an important distinction. In the former, the car that was holding us up is, in its entirety, the object of the sentence, modified by what’s known as a restrictive clause. In the latter, the car is the object, a subsequent clause (called non-restrictive) giving some further information about its annoying slowness.

My view is that while the comma distinguishes between the two sentences, further distinguishing them by using opposing pronouns can do nothing but good.

Posted by Dan, 14 January, 2012 under Rules


  • Surely ‘We have overtaken the car what was holding us up.’

    Posted by Jason, 14 January, 2012, 2:22pm

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