“Those of us that had been up all night were in no mood for coffee and donuts, we wanted strong drink. We were, after all, the absolute cream of the national sporting press.”—Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Writers faced with the conundrum of which vs. that—particularly bloggers jamming out to “White Rabbit” whilst brandishing hunting knives in grimy bathtub—often find themselves vexed and in the need for some firewater. Although it is not always a breeze when dealing with which and that, this week’s column will take a simple approach.
Use that with restrictive clauses. This means that introduces information essential to the meaning of a sentence, restricting some other part of the sentence (often the subject). Remember also not to use a comma before that in a restrictive clause.
Example: If the terrorists hate America, I wonder what they think of the Japanese performance art that consists of a man removing and serving his own frank and beans to paying guests.
In this sentence, the restrictive clause singles out one specific person engaging in self-mutilation and promoting public cannibalism. Even considering the notoriously high bar for weirdness in Japan, this artist stands out as a ballsy pioneer (amirite, pun people?).
Use which with nonrestrictive clauses. A nonrestrictive clause conveys extra information about an element within a sentence. It does not define this element, so one could omit the nonrestrictive clause without changing the meaning of the sentence. Unlike with that, commas accompany the use of the word which.
Example: Inchoate rapper Krispy Kreme has issued a remarkable warning, which haters would be ill-advised to ignore: he could beat you up even if you had one thousand knives.
In this sentence, you could take out the clause after which without omitting the meaning: Krispy’s boast was remarkable and numerically precise.
That’s it—invaluable advice from one of God’s own prototypes.