Tag Archives: that and which

Not that again

The February post on this blog discussed when to use that and when to use which.

That can be troublesome in another way, too: by its absence.

Many writers have developed the habit of leaving out the word that. Omitting that can cause confusion. If a reader must go back and reread a sentence because an omitted that made the sentence unclear, communication is ineffective.

I recently read a sentence that began, “We anticipate the report . . .”

How did your brain process that phrase? My brain thought the next words would probably tell me when we anticipate the report. I was ready for something like, “We anticipate the report by Friday.” The phrasing had set my expectations.

But in fact, the second half of the sentence was, “will contain your recommendations.” Wait, what? I stumbled, then read it again:

We anticipate the report will contain your recommendations.

Readers should not have to read a sentence once, pause to recover from mental whiplash, and read the sentence a second time. Readers should not have to work so hard.

The writer created a miscue by omitting that:

(Improved) We anticipate that the report will contain your recommendations.

With that included, the reader can easily understand the sentence and move on.

Another example:

Hatfield County claimed the property was worth $1 million.

Did you start out thinking that Hatfield County claimed the property? The omission of that can cause confusion for a moment.

(Improved) Hatfield County claimed that the property was worth $1 million.

Here’s one more example:

She demonstrated the system
saves time.

Where would a that help the reader?

The Associated Press Stylebook says, “When in doubt, include that. Omission can hurt. Inclusion never does.”

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That vs. which

Some writers struggle to choose between that and which. And some writers don’t struggle at all; they choose which because they think it sounds more correct or more formal. The writers in the second group are often wrong.

The wonderful writing teacher William Zinsser puts it simply: “Always use that unless it makes your meaning ambiguous.” In most situations, Zinsser says, that is what you would naturally say and therefore what you should write.

Readers who want a grammar rule for this guidance can have one. It’s a matter of restrictive clauses and nonrestrictive clauses.

That introduces restrictive clauses:

The leftover vegetables that are in the refrigerator would make a good stew.

“That are in the refrigerator” is a restrictive clause; it clarifies the specific vegetables being referred to. The writer is not referring to the vegetables that are in the root cellar; she is referring to the vegetables that are in the refrigerator.

Which is for nonrestrictive clauses:

The leftover vegetables, which are in the refrigerator, would make a good stew.

“Which are in the refrigerator” is nonrestrictive. The sentence would be clear without this clause; the clause simply provides additional information. It’s as if the writer were saying, “The leftover vegetables would make a good stew. Incidentally, they are in the refrigerator.”

This discussion of “that” versus “which,” like everything else in this blog, assumes U.S. English. Users of British English should pay no attention.

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