I’ll admit it: Even after all these years of striving for effective business writing, I struggle with the which vs. that question. I often choose whichever sounds better (no pun intended) and make my decision on a case-by-case basis. But there is a way to know which way is the right way (again, no pun intended, promise!).
How? Simply ask yourself, “Will I change the meaning if I change the word?”
For example, compare the same sentence written two times, once with “which” and once with “that”:
- The farm which has two barns has flooding issues.
- The farm that has two barns has flooding issues.
Do you see the different meaning? The first sentence says the farm has flooding issues. You could leave out the part about the two barns without changing the meaning. The second sentence implies there is more than one farm and you are distinguishing one from the other to tell your reader which farm has flooding issues.
Here’s a hint: Put commas around the clause in the first sentence (and the commas should be there anyway, right?):
- The farm, which has two barns, has flooding issues.
Using the commas helps us to see that it’s a clause that doesn’t have to be there.
So the question to ask yourself as the writer is, are you saying the farm has flooding issues? Or are you talking about one farm vs. another? That’s how you know whether to use which or that.
Effective business writing requires that you communicate as clearly as possible so your reader can digest your content as fast as possible. Knowing when to use which vs. that can help.
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