By the Way

2007-05-28

Recently someone IM'd me about the grammatical distinction between "that" and "which". While there are lots of nuances involved (language is fun but messy), to me the main difference is that you use "which" in phrases where you'd naturally say "by the way", whereas you use "that" in phrases that are directly descriptive of something. Consider a few sentences:

The burrito that I had this morning was the best I ever tasted.

vs.

The burrito that I had this morning, which (by the way) cost only two dollars, was the best I ever tasted.

A "that" phrase can also naturally set up a comparison to another such phrase, such as:

The burrito that I had this morning was the best I ever tasted, but the burrito that I had yesteday was awful.

In spoken English we often remove the "that" as unnecessary:

The burrito I had this morning was the best I ever tasted, but the burrito I had yesteday was awful.

Sometimes people use "which" in such sentences, but only because they know that "which" is proper sometimes (but they don't know when to use it, so they use it all the time just to be sure):

The burrito which I had this morning was the best I ever tasted, but the burrito which I had yesteday was awful.


Peter Saint-Andre > Journal