#amwriting: that and which: two commonly misused words

That and which are two commonly misused words. When it comes to eliminating the word “that,” it’s crucial you look at each instance of how it is used.  Sometimes, “that” is the only word for a given situation.

Don’t gut your prose just because some online guru tells you ‘that’ is an unnecessary pronoun. If you remove every instance of the word “that” you’ll end up with a mess on your hands.

Something you need to know: “that” and “which” are not interchangeable so you can’t just use a global search to change every instance of “that” to “which.”

“That” is a pronoun used to identify a specific person or thing observed by the speaker, a determiner, an adverb, and a conjunction.

  1. “That’s his dog on the curb.” (Identifier)
  2. “Look at that red car.” (Determiner)
  3. “I wouldn’t go that far.” (Adverb)
  4. “She claimed that she was married.” (Conjunction)

In the case of number 4, the sentence would be stronger without it. Most of the time, the prose is made stronger when the word “that” is simply cut and not replaced with anything. I say most, but not all of the time. Use common sense and if a beta reader runs amok in your manuscript telling you ax “this and that,” examine each instance of what has their undies in a twist and try to see why they are pointing it out.

There are cases where only “that” will suffice. When do we use the word “that?” We use it when we have something called a ‘Restrictive Clause’:

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. Only gems that sparkle bring about clemency. In this sentence, forgiveness is restricted to one kind of gem.

“Which” is a pronoun asking for information. It specifies one or more people (or things) from a particular set, and it is also a determiner:

  1. “Which are the best diapers for newborns?” (Pronoun)
  2. “I’m looking at a house which is for sale on Black Lake.” (Determiner)

Go lightly with “which” and “that” but use them when they are required.

The same common-sense approach goes for “very.” I seldom need to use it, but I do when it’s required. However, some people employ it too frequently, and it’s rarely needed, fluffing up the word count. As with every word, there are times when it’s the only one that will convey an idea crucial to your story.

Mark Twain had a perfect comment regarding overusing “very.”

“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it, and the writing will be just as it should be.”

I’d love to be that editor.

Many writers have beta readers look at their work before it is submitted. I would also suggest hiring a freelance editor. Besides having a person pointing out where you need to insert or delete a comma, hiring a freelance editor is a good way to discover many other things you don’t want to include in your manuscript, things you are unaware are in there:

  • They will point out when you use too many quantifiers “It was really big.” “It was incredibly awesome.”
  • Places where you “tell” the story instead of showing it: “Bert was mad.”
  • They will mention it when you swamp the reader with minute details: “Mary’s eyebrows drew together, her lips turned down, and her cheeks popped a dimple.”
  • They will comment when you ruin the taste of your work with prettily written descriptors: “-ly” words
  • They will make a comment when your characters natter on about nothing just to kill time.

Freelance editors will point out these all things. We all feel a flash of anger when certain flaws in our work are pointed out. However, when an editor corrects your lazy writing habits, they aren’t trying to change your voice. They’ve seen something good in your work, and they’re pointing out places where you can tighten it up and grow as a writer.

Remember, voice is how you use syntax, diction, punctuation, character development, and dialogue. When you receive an editor’s comments, it might sting, but in the process, you will develop better, more consistent writing habits.


Quoted Sources

Quick and Dirty Tips,  The Grammar Girl, Which vs. That, http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/which-versus-that-0 © Mignon Fogarty, 2008-2017

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14 Comments

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14 responses to “#amwriting: that and which: two commonly misused words

  1. I’d have to kill my editor if she deleted every damn in my work 😉

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  2. I enjoy your post, because they are reminders of how easy it is to get sloppy with your writing. I keep a check list of my weaknesses and ‘that’ and ‘which’ useage is towards the top of the list. Thanks for the refresher.

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  3. I was very much inclined to overdo the use of ‘very’ but now I use it very sparingly. Oops. A ‘ly’ word. Make that, but now I use it very.

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    • Hah! –me too. Every word has a good and proper use–even “very” and the abhorred adverb, lol! Seriously, we all have certain crutch words we rely on in the first stages of writing a rough draft, to help us get the framework of the story out of our heads and on paper. We “tell” it, a guideline to to show us what we want to write in the second draft as much as anything, and “very” is often one of those mental crutches. Unfortunately, it sometimes gets left in and then people begin frothing. 😉

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      • I’ve never quite figured out why adverbs are frowned upon. Verbs alone seldom give an exact description of how the action takes place. When they do — like ‘muttered’ — people throw up hands in horror and say you must use ‘said’.

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  4. Very clear and good explanation! Thanks! Interestingly, in Italian, the word for “that,” which is “che” can never be left out of a dependent clause, although it can be in English.

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    • Interesting! I never knew that. Our languages still share some similarities from their common root, but as they absorb other influences, they continue to evolve separately.

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      • Yes. Well, Italian still uses the subjunctive quite a bit, and those clauses always need “che.” I guess you could say we evolved away from some of the older forms. But some of the beauty of Italian is its exactness, and of English its flexibility.

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  5. Thanks for this helpful post, Connie. 🙂 — Suzanne

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