Grammar Crammer: That vs. Which4 min read

The man stole the car, which, that, which…hmm.

Both the SAT and ACT test grammar; the SAT in the Multiple Choice Writing Section, and the ACT in the English Test. A thorough knowledge of English grammar is also necessary if you want a top score on the essay section of either exam. We now have a series of posts to help: Grammar Crammer! In this post we’ll discuss one grammar rule that is frequently tested on both exams: that vs. which. See our previous post here.

Both that and which are relative pronouns that introduce relative clauses. For an explanation of these clauses, see our previous post, Grammar Crammer: Clause vs. Phrase. For example:

The man stole the car that was unlocked.

The man stole the car, which was parked under a tree.

So, what’s the difference? Well, the most obvious difference between the two sentences is that one has a comma while the other does not. Clauses that use which must be set off from the rest of the sentence with commas. If the above sentence continued after the clause “which was parked under a tree,” then you would need a comma after that phrase in addition to the one before it. Consider this example:

The car, which was under the tree, is long gone.

Relative clauses that begin with “that” should not be set off from the rest of the sentence:

The car that was stolen is long gone.

That’s really all you need to know for the test. But, why is there any difference at all? I’m so glad you asked!

E. B. White

This rule came about in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century, and was famously enshrined in Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, one of the most influential books on grammar and usage in America. The justification for the rule is that “that” is used to introduce “restrictive clauses” while “which” is used to introduce “non-restrictive clauses.” What is the difference between a restrictive and a non-restrictive clause, you ask? A restrictive clause is a clause that contains information that is essential to the meaning of the sentence as a whole and cannot be left out without substantially altering the meaning of a sentence as a whole – it “restricts” the meaning of a sentence. Consider our previous example:

The man stole the car that was unlocked.

The fact that the car was unlocked was probably why the man decided to steal it and not another car, so the clause “that was unlocked” is considered to be restrictive. A non-restrictive clause on the other hand simply contains extra information that is just mentioned “by the way”; it could be left out without substantially changing the meaning of the sentence:

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The man stole the car, which was parked under a tree.

The fact that the car was parked under a tree doesn’t have much to do with its being stolen, so this clause would be considered non-restrictive. Because restrictive clauses are integral parts of the entire sentence, they should not be separated from the rest of the sentence with commas; because non-restrictive clauses are not integral parts of the entire sentence, they should be separated from the rest of the sentence with commas.

If you’re not clear on the difference between restrictive and non-restrictive clauses, don’t worry. All you need to know for the SAT and ACT exams is that “which” needs commas and “that” doesn’t.

William Strunk, Jr.

Interestingly, this rule didn’t actually exist before the twentieth century. For instance, consider the beginning of the Lord’s Prayer as translated in the King James version of the Bible:

“Our father which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.”

Note that there is no comma before the word “which,” and the clause “which art in heaven” is restrictive, since it makes it clear that we’re talking about God, not your dad. According to Strunk and White, the bible would be wrong. However, because Strunk & White included this rule in their book, it became twentieth century English grammar law, and because the SAT and ACT were invented in the twentieth century, they test it, and because they test it, you have to know it.

Remember, if you want extra help studying for the SAT or ACT, you can always study with experts like me at Test Masters. Until next time, keep studying!

 

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