“which” versus “that”

I suggest to stop saying “which” when we want to say “that”. The difference isn’t that difficult to understand. For example you say

  1. “The bike that has a broken chain comes first”

when there are multiple bikes to repair, and you tell your colleague which one comes first. But you say

  1. “The bike, which has a broken chain, comes first.”

when there are multiple objects to store in the lorry, and you want the bike to come first because it has a broken chain.

Yet many people still seem to prefer using “which” also in the first case. They say:

  1. “The bike which has a broken chain comes first.”

A common mistake

We can’t really call it a mistake because the English language has a long history. It seems that in British English it is explicitly allowed to use “which” instead of “that”.

Examples of “wrong” usage:

  • “This jar is not empty but contains a small amount of white sand which shifts on the bottom.” (Erin Morgenstern, Night Circus, p. 299)

  • “There are, it is true, works of recent Japanese literature which are relatively untouched by Western influence.” (Donald Keene, 1958, in Translator’s introduction to No longer human by Osamu Dazai)

  • “Django 5.0 brings a deluge of exciting new features which you can read about in the in-development 5.0 release notes.” (Natalia Bidart, September 2023, djangoproject.com)

Sources and further reading