That Which Is Write

Confession: the first thing I learned about ‘that’ is that it never needs a comma before it.

It sounded too good to be true!

Now I try it for size in my sentence, and if it sounds right, I use it.

This is, of course,  an over-simplification, but it works more often than not.

It takes us back to essential and non-essential clauses, which we touched on in the post Comma Conventions
Below are the essential and non-essential clauses that we touched on when exploring commas.

Bear in mind that ‘who’ uses the same conventions as ‘which’, but ‘who’ refers to people while ‘which’ should be used to refer to things. ‘That’ is more often used to refer to things.

But while ‘that’ never wants a comma, ‘which’ (and ‘who’) can be used with or without one.

Remember these..?

The footballer, who had trained with the Academy, joined the wanderers.

This sentence makes sense without the middle phrase. It is nonessential, so bracket it between commas. Added information requires added commas.

The footballer who had trained with the Academy joined the Wanderers.

This means something different. That same phrase is essential in order to identify the footballer. Essential information is not added information, so you don’t need added commas.

The principle that added information needs added commas was gleaned from the Grammar Girl website, which I’ve mentioned before on this blog.

Websites also use the terms restrictive or defining clauses, to describe the essential clauses that don’t require commas because they restrict the meaning of the sentence or define what you’re talking about. Without that clause, the sentence would mean something different.

Grammar Girl‘s Quick and Dirty Tips suggests we can use that before a restrictive (or essential) clause and which before everything else.

Dogs that bark all the time are a nuisance.

Restrictive or essential to define what we’re talking about. Not all dogs bark all the time.

Dogs, which usually bark at strange noises, deter burglars.

Non-essential. ‘Dogs deter burglars’ means the same thing.

Grammarly’s blog puts it differently…

  1. In a defining clause, use ‘that’.
  2. In non-defining clauses, use ‘which’.
  3. Remember, ‘which’ is as disposable as a sandwich bag. If you can remove the clause without destroying the meaning of the sentence, the clause is nonessential and you can use ‘which’.

More about THAT word

The other thing I learned about ‘that’ is that you can often delete it and your sentence will still make sense. And, usually, it reads better. Try how your paragraph sounds without it. If it sounds better, delete the word.

  1. I like that picture that you painted.
  2. The chicken that I ate gave me a stomach-ache.
  3. The day that thou gavest, Lord, is ended.
  4. If I’d known then that he was lying, I wouldn’t have gone with him.
  5. If I’d known that he was lying, I wouldn’t have gone with him.

Sentence 1 has too many ‘that’s; it’s an easy decision.

Sentence 2 works with or without that word – it’s your choice.

You may recognise sentence 3. Without ‘that’, the line fits into the hymn tune. But if it weren’t poetry, which would sound better?

I have marked examples 4 and 5 with my own preference judged purely on the flow of the sentence with or without the word, ‘then’. But you may feel differently. It is simply a matter of preference.

For info, on editing this, I have reversed my opinion on examples 4 and 5. Sometimes it really is only a matter of choice.

As is so much of our style and grammar in English writing.


boy with letters and numbers around head


Do you have any quick and dirty tips of your own to remember any of this?

I’m sure there must be more out there. Do share…

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6 thoughts on “That Which Is Write

  1. Hi Cathy, I try to never use that in a sentence. I always have to remember to insert a comma before and when I list items. I was taught never to use a comma before and. I was also taught never to start a sentence with But but everyone does it now [smile].

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was also tauht never to start a sentence with that word. But now I do it all the time.
      (‘But’ is actually a word I use far too often in my fiction.)
      I was also taught to put a comma wherever Ithere was a pause in the sentence. But that was back in the dark ages of the sixties.

      Liked by 1 person

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