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First published January 7, 1994

Using that or which with that stupid comma

by Stephen Wilbers

 

You can work your entire career without knowing the difference between a gerund and a participle, and still be successful. You can live your entire life without knowing the difference between a metaphor and a simile, and still be happy.

 

But you can’t write on the job without knowing the difference between a main clause and a dependent clause, and still be effective.

 

Before I explain why this is so, it might help if I defined some basic grammatical terms. A “clause,” for example, is a string of words that contains a subject and a verb. Clauses come in two varieties: “main” (or “independent”) and “dependent” (or “subordinate”). A “main clause” forms a complete sentence and can stand on its own. A “dependent clause,” on the other hand, must be attached in some way to a main clause.

 

OK so far? Here’s where things get a little tricky.

 

Often the relationship between a main clause and a dependent clause is indicated by the use of “which” or “that” (relative pronouns) and by the presence or absence of that most terrifying of punctuation marks: the comma.

 

Now, don’t panic. Don’t flip to the comics or the sports page yet. Just remember that a comma is simply a mark separating the parts of a sentence. Some parts need separating. Others don’t. (Centuries ago, the comma looked like a slash or “/”; over time its size has diminished, but its function is unchanged.)

 

Take this sentence as an example: “The proposal which the council approved recommended hiring teenagers from the inner city.” Because the writer has not indicated how the dependent clause relates to the main clause, the sentence is unclear.

 

Does it mean the proposal, which happened to be approved by the council, recommended hiring inner city teenagers? Or does it mean, of all the proposals considered by the council, the one that recommended hiring inner city teenagers was approved?

 

If you’re having trouble hearing the difference, try reading the sentence out loud. For the first meaning, read it with pauses (which I’ll mark the old way): “The proposal / which the council approved / recommended hiring teenagers from the inner city.” For the second meaning, change “which” to “that” and read it without pauses: “The proposal that the council approved recommended hiring teenagers from the inner city.”

 

Now can you hear the two meanings?

 

Your job as a writer is to ensure that your reader understands which meaning you have in mind. You can accomplish this by following these simple steps:

 

1. Identify the main clause and the dependent clause. (In the example above, the main clause is “The proposal . . . recommended hiring teenagers from the inner city,” and the dependent clause is “. . . which the council approved . . .”).

 

2. Determine if the dependent clause is “nonrestrictive” (that is, nonessential or merely descriptive in meaning), or if it is “restrictive” (that is, essential to the meaning of the sentence).

 

3. Introduce a nonrestrictive clause with “which” and mark it with commas.

 

4. Introduce a restrictive clause with “that” and do not mark it with commas.

 

Hint: If you can put parentheses around a dependent clause, it is, by definition, a nonessential or nonrestrictive clause and therefore should be marked with commas and introduced with “which.”

 

Now, if you made it this far, you have survived an explanation of one of the most subtle, and most troubling, rules of English grammar. But does it really matter? Does the reader care?

 

Only if your goal is to communicate clearly and unambiguously. But here’s the irony: Even readers who don’t respect this rule in their writing will understand your meaning more precisely if you respect it in your writing.

 

It’s not fair, is it?


 

 

 


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