Grammar Booty Call: ‘That’ versus ‘Which’ (a.k.a. Microsoft Word Keeps Adding Squiggly Green Lines) 0 Comments

Grammar Booty Call: ‘That’ versus ‘Which’ (a.k.a. Microsoft Word Keeps Adding Squiggly Green Lines)

You’re typing a sentence in which a noun is followed by an adjectival clause that describes it: I met the child who makes a lot of noise. I bought boots that repel water. In each of these cases, the adjectival clauses act as a single unit, much like a single-word adjective: I met the noisy child. I bought waterproof boots. Clear enough, right? The issue arises when Microsoft Word—that old bulwark of a word processor—highlights your ostensible ineptitude in grammar by introducing green squiggly lines to your text.

I get asked these questions all the time. What’s wrong with a sentence like I cooked the bread which was mouldy? Even as I type, Word is getting all up in my grill, suggesting I either use bread that or bread, which. And do I really need that comma?

Context: linguistically speaking, this is an issue of syntax (the way words are ordered in a sentence so as to best convey meaning). It comes down to whether the adjectival clause that follows the noun is describing it in a restrictive or non-restrictive manner.


An adjectival clause that is restrictive specifies a particular quality that is inherent in the noun. That is to say, it is tied to the noun in a defining or limiting capacity (hence the name restrictive).


An adjectival clause that is non-restrictive merely adds information about the noun. That’s why it’s vital that it be set off by a comma: it is a parenthetical element in the sentence.

Restrictive and non-restrictive in action


Before I tackle the that-versus-­which issue, which has to do with clauses, let me clarify the terms restrictive and non-restrictive using individual words. Compare the two sentences:

(1) My sister Sophie visited me yesterday.

(2) My sister, Sophie, visited me yesterday.

In sentence (2), the use of commas indicates that the proper noun Sophie merely adds information about the noun sister—that is to say, in this instance, Sophie and sister equivalent. There is only one sister, whose name is Sophie. The thing about parenthetical elements in sentences is that they can easily be taken away without altering the meaning of the sentence. Thus, My sister visited me yesterday makes sense: there is only one sister and, presuming the reader is familiar with the sister’s identity, there is no loss of clarity.

In sentence (1), however, sister and Sophie are not separated by a comma. This means that the relationship between the two nouns is that of restriction: it is the Sophie sister that is being talked about, which is relevant as there exist (or are implied to exist) other sisters not named Sophie. In this case, Sophie cannot be omitted from the sentence; the meaning would change, otherwise.

Now to use clauses. Let’s say we have these two sentences:

(3) I love my cousins who came to visit me in hospital.

(4) I love my cousins, who came to visit me in hospital.

In light of what I’ve explained earlier, hopefully it’s clear that (3), with the restrictive adjectival clause, means something totally different from (4)—it is much more political. In (3), the love only goes out to specific cousins, namely those who came to visit. There must be a selection of cousins who failed to make a hospital visit, whether for legitimate reasons or out of heartless neglect. On the other hand, (4) indicates that the love is directed at all the cousins, all of whom made a lovely hospital visit. Even if you take out the parenthetical details, the sentence still (relatively) means the same thing: the fact that the cousins came to visit doesn’t change the love or define the recipient of affection, but rather merely elaborates upon why the love is being spread around.

To finally address the Grammar Booty Call in earnest, then, let’s look at these sentences:

(5) I like all my birthday presents that are on the table.

(6) I like all my birthday presents, which are on the table.

Based on all the examples above, we can again see that the sentence with the restrictive clause, (5), makes the sentence much more selective in terms of what is being discussed. There are presents on the table, but there must be others not on the table (which are either loved, not just liked, or completely unappreciated by the birthday celebrant for one reason or another). On the other hand, in (6), all of the presents are both liked and situated on the table. Whether they are on the table or not is irrelevant to the birthday celebrant’s appreciation of them.

Final words

Some writers find the use of which much more formal-sounding than that. Academics, especially, are prone to this, and I’ve edited many an academic essay containing up to ten ambiguous which clauses per page. In my opinion, this is problematic: sure, endeavour to be authoritative in your writing, but never sacrifice clarity for airs.

Adolfo Aranjuez (a.k.a. ‘Fez’) is the deputy editor of Voiceworks, and the editor of arts and culture magazine Fragmented. He is also the in-house editor at independent publisher Melbourne Books, whose annual anthology Award Winning Australian Writing will be released in November. If you’d like to send him a Grammar Booty Call, you can contact him via Twitter on @adolfo_ae.

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