Judy Nollet
White Plume Communications

writer, instructional designer, eLearning developer

The Clear Which Project

Halloween is only one day. But all year long, people have trouble with "whiches." When should you use "which" and when "that"? And are commas necessary to separate the clause from the rest of the sentence?

To illustrate the rules, here are two similar instructions:

  1. Open the door that is blue.
  2. Open the door, which is blue.

Sentence number 1 describes a situation with more than one door. To follow the instruction correctly, it's necessary for you to know the color of the door you should open. The color clause isn't set off with commas, because it's an integral part of the sentence.

Sentence number 2 describes a situation with only one door. You don't have to make a choice, so you don't need to know the door's color to complete the task. Since this color clause represents a slight departure from the main point, it is set off with commas.

Rule of Thumb (whiches' thumb, that is!)

  • Sometimes there are clauses that are required to make the sentence meaningful.
  • Sometimes there are extra descriptive clauses, which aren't necessary to make the point.
  • A comma is the only thing "protecting" you from a which!

For related info, check out The Hamilton Comma.

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Copyright Judy Nollet, White Plume Communications. 
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