As a mostly self-educated old lady, I’ve had to learn some real lessons, regarding the words ‘that’ and ‘which’. I finally managed to rid myself of the inadvertent overuse of the word ‘that’ in my writing, but in the process I find I have become a ‘which’, as opposed to a ‘witch’, which my children will tell you I have always been. Irene Luvaul, dear friend and editor on ‘Huw the Bard’ has spent many hours noting instances where I inappropriately used which instead of that.
I’ve spent 59 years using these two words improperly!
So, when DO we use the word that in an appropriate and defensible fashion? After all, too many that’s make the prose boring and forgettable. Some people say you must NEVER use it, but Irene says they are incorrect.
So does Grammar Girl, (Mignon Fogarty) on her awesome website for writers with questions. This website is an invaluable resource for folks like me, with some education, but no memory of what that education actually taught us.
There are instances where only that will suffice. When do we use the word that?
We use it when we have something called a ‘Restrictive Clause’. So now you want to know (as I did) what the heck THAT is!
Quote from Grammar Girl, “A restrictive clause is just part of a sentence that you can’t get rid of because it specifically restricts some other part of the sentence.” She goes on to give a specific example of a restrictive clause: “Gems that sparkle often elicit forgiveness.” See? Not just ANY gems elicit forgiveness in this sentence, but only gems that sparkle. It is restricted to one kind of gem.
So, now we know about restrictive clauses, but what about nonrestrictive clauses? Again we turn to Grammar Girl and she says, “A nonrestrictive clause is something that can be left off without changing the meaning of the sentence. You can think of a nonrestrictive clause as simply additional information.” Again she gives the example, “Diamonds, which are expensive, often elicit forgiveness.” The word ‘which’ isn’t really necessary, as the meaning of the sentence would not be changed if you left it out. “Diamonds are expensive, but often elicit forgiveness.” Sometimes the sentence is better without the extraneous word.
I still make a mish-mash of things as they fall out of my head and into my book, but I take comfort in knowing I am not alone! Writing is a journey, and I learn something new every step of the way.