Which & That [In Relative Clauses!]

Lesson Overview

WHICH or THAT… & Relative Clauses! When should you use ‘which’ and ‘that’? Let’s talk about it!

Video Transcript
Section 1
Well hey there I’m Emma from mmmEnglish! Today we’re going to talk about two words that are pretty similar. Two words that I know many of you have been confused about: which or that?

Now these words are exactly what we’re going to talk about today, ‘which’ or ‘that’ in relative clauses. And I’ll check that you’ve been listening at the end of this lesson because I’ve got a mini quiz to test you, right? Ten questions in a little over two minutes. So make sure you pay attention.

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No – one day I’ll remember which one is which.

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So which one is it? Which or that?

These words are super, super common. They have lots of different uses and meanings which causes confusion.

  • Which cat? That cat!
  • Did you see that?
  • Which way do I need to go?

But we’re not going to go over all of the different uses of ‘which’ and ‘that’ in this video today. There’s loads! Today we’ll focus on those times when it’s confusing or it’s unclear which one you should be using. Which or that? And that’s when they’re used in relative clauses to introduce adjective clauses.

Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. Just pause for a second here. Relative clause, adjective clause, what are we talking about? That sounds confusing! Let’s look at a few examples. It’s much easier than it sounds. So take a look at this sentence here.

  • My car, which is brand new, is making strange noises.

Now can you see that this sentence has two parts? Two separate bits of information about the car.

My car which is brand new.
My car is making strange noises.

See how each of these clauses has a subject and a verb. That’s what makes it a clause. Now look at the clause that starts with ‘which’. That clause gives us more information about the subject. It’s not just my car, it’s my brand new car. So ‘which’ and ‘that’ are often used at the beginning of clauses that give us more information about the subject. And these are the adjective clauses that we talked about earlier. They describe the subject in more detail.

But there is an important difference that you need to remember. ‘That’ is used for essential clauses.

Now essential means you need it, it’s necessary. You need to use ‘that’ when you are adding information that’s important. Okay without it, we wouldn’t know exactly what you’re talking about. We use ‘which’ when the information is not essential. It’s nice to have extra information but we don’t have to have it to understand the meaning. Without it, we’re still going to understand the clause in the sentence. Let’s look at a few examples together.

Remember my car? My brand new car. I’m using ‘which’ in this sentence because the information that my car is brand new is not essential to the meaning in this sentence. I only have one car. If I take that part of the sentence out, then the sentence still makes sense, right?

My car is making strange noises.

Same car, same problem. Just lacking a bit of detail. But now let’s look at a different example.

  • The car that I hired last week was making strange noises.

Now I used ‘that’ because it’s important, essential information. I’m trying to be specific about the car because it’s not clear which one I’m talking about. There are lots of cars for hire. Maybe I’ve even driven more than one. So that is introducing information that helps me to be specific about which car, alright? We can’t take that part of the sentence out because then the sentence isn’t clear, right? It just doesn’t make sense. Which car was making noises?

For any of you who are sitting exams and writing essays – that kind of thing, there’s another really important tip that I’ve got for you. Do you notice the difference between these two sentences? What’s the difference? Apart from ‘which’ and ‘that’. Yeah it’s the commas, right? This difference in punctuation is absolutely necessary. So when you have an adjective clause that’s starting with ‘that’ you don’t need to use commas. This information is essential, right? It’s part of the meaning of the sentence. It can’t be taken out.

If the adjective clause starts with ‘which‘, then you need to put a comma before and after the clause. This makes it seem like it’s an extra, inserted piece of information, which it is, right? It’s got the commas to show you that you can pick it up and remove it and your sentence still makes sense.

Alright one more example and then you’re going to be more than ready to take the quiz at the end.

Imagine that I have three dogs. Right, one of my dogs has spots. The other two don’t. And my dog that has spots is missing.  So if I tell you: “My dog is missing”, it’s not very helpful because you don’t know which dog I’m talking about, right?

  • My dog that has spots is missing.

The fact that the dog has spots, it’s not the brown one, it’s not the white one. This information is essential, it’s important information, right?

So let’s compare it to my brother’s dog because my brother has just one dog. He got the dog for his birthday and his dog is sick.

  • My brother’s dog is sick.

We don’t need to know any more information about this, right? We know which dog because he’s only got one. But if I wanted to give some extra information to tell you a little bit more about the dog, I can use ‘which’.

  • My brother’s dog, which he got for his birthday, is sick.

So that’s extra information right? It’s not essential. So we used ‘which’ and we used commas.


Okay how are you feeling? Are you ready to test yourself a little? I think you are, I think you are more than ready. I’ll be back after this super quick break with a quiz to check what you learned during this lesson. Don’t go anywhere.

Okay are you ready?

All you need to do is decide is ‘which’ or ‘that’ the correct word to use. This quiz is going to get faster as we go so you’ll have less and less time to answer each question. So you’ve got to be ready, right? Make sure you keep track of how many questions you get right so that you can tell me how you did at the end. Up here I’m going to show you two sentences but only one of those sentences is correct. Right you just need to choose the correct one. You ready?

#1 I have one house that has a green door.
a. My house that has a green door is…
b. My house, which has a green door, is…

So which of these sentences is the correct sentence? The answer’s B: My house, which has a green door is at the end of the street.
I’ve only got one house, right? So the detail about the door is not essential information.

a. Shoes that have cheap soles make my feet hurt.

b. Shoes, which have cheap soles, make my feet hurt.

A is the right answer here. Not all shoes have cheap soles, right? And they don’t all hurt my feet, only the shoes with cheap soles. So I’m being specific, it’s essential information.

a. The ring that my grandma gave me is worth a lot of money.

b. The ring, which my grandma gave me, is worth a lot of money.

Which one of these is correct? Actually both of them could work here. So I guess you’re right! It would depend if the listener knew which ring they were talking about, right? If we both knew that we were talking about this ring, if I only had one ring on, then it’s just extra information, right? But if you didn’t know which ring, then I can be specific and say: “The ring that my grandma gave me.”

a. Food that is cooked with soy oil can give him and allergic reaction.
b. Food, which is cooked with soy oil, can give him an allergic reaction.

What do you think? It’s definitely A. He’s not allergic to all food, just specifically food cooked with soy oil. So see how if we remove this clause, it changes completely, right? Food can give him an allergic reaction. It’s a completely different meaning. The information is essential.

#5 I have one pair of sunglasses and they’re pink.
a. I lost my sunglasses that are pink at the beach.
b. I lost my sunglasses, which are pink, at the beach.

B makes more sense. The fact that they’re pink is not really essential information, is it? So we would choose B.

#6 I’ve had my computer for six years. It’s the only computer that I have.
a. My computer that I’ve had for 6 years died.
b. My computer, which I’ve had for 6 years, died.

B. Yes! Again, this information is not essential because we know that I only have one computer, right?

a. Music that has a good beat makes me want to dance!
b. Music, which has a good beat, makes me want to dance!

Music makes me want to dance but only music with a good beat not any other types of music. Yes it’s A, you’re right.

a. My shirt that has a stain on it needs to be washed.
b. My shirt, which has a stain on it, needs to be washed.

A, right? It’s essential information. I need to know which shirt, out of all of my shirts, which is the one that needs to be washed. The one with the stain.

a. I forgot my jacket that’s purple on the bus.
b. I forgot my jacket, which is purple, on the bus.

The answer’s B.

Okay the last one now.

a. The picture that was taken at sunset is my favourite.
b. The picture, which was taken at sunset, is my favourite.

Yeah! The picture that was taken at sunset is my favourite, A.

Perfect! Nice work! That got really, really fast towards the end, don’t you think? How did you do? How many did you get right? Did you make any mistakes? Share your results in the comments so I can see how you did.

I love creating new lessons for you every single week so if you did enjoy this lesson, then make sure you hit the subscribe button down there. And let me know if there are any English lessons you are dying for me to teach.

Right now, I think it’s time to head over here and check out this lesson. I’ll see you in there!

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