My most recent copy editor was big on correcting which/that, and I can hardly blame him, since it’s one of those writing things that I just cannot seem to figure out. I don’t know if this is a regional issue, but I often use which in conversation (and writing) when I should be using that. (Don’t get me started on people who use that when they should use who!)
Because I speak that way, I write that way. And thus I give my copy editor a lot of fodder for complaint.
Grammar Girl, as always, has a Quick and Dirty Tip on how which should be used. If you read through the first page of the post, you’ll find that a nonrestrictive statement (one that could be left off and not change the meaning of the sentence) gets a which.
My problem was, and still is, that I cannot seem to figure out when you can eliminate a phrase yet not change the meaning of a sentence. My brain refuses to accept that you can delete words without changing meaning.
Fortunately for me, over on GrammarBook.com, they finish up their article with this statement.
- The distinction between that and which, though a useful guideline, is widely disregarded:Which is routinely used in place of that, even by great writers and journalists, perhaps because it sounds more elegant.
Whew! So, essentially, I won’t die if I don’t understand this one!
For the most part, when it came to my copy editor’s changes on this subject, I simply let them go. I didn’t feel like* I was on solid ground with this rule, so I assumed he was correct. Not worth arguing over.
If you want to see whether you’re barking up the right tree on this topic, you can take this online quiz (which also includes the who option.) (( I figured I could use which there, since you would figure it out if you click over there anyway, and thus it’s not restricting the meaning of the sentence.))
(FWIW, I got 10/10 right…so perhaps I’m not so bad at this writing thing after all!)
I think that most of us have an instinctive grasp of this rule due to our reading, but there are still times that we get it wrong. The good part is, it’s highly unlikely you’ll get caught since other people seem to struggle with this one, too!
*We’ll get to that word some other week…