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Which vs. That

A Good Old-Fashioned Grammar Nerd-Out

This post goes out to all the grammar vigilantes. Keep fighting for dear old uncles Strunk & White.

Although people might use the words which and that interchangeably in friendly conversation, copy and advertising require perfection—unlike the beginning of this ad from Miele. An otherwise pleasant commercial extolling the virtues of home appliances (and who doesn’t get excited by an efficient dishwasher?) is marred by a classic which/that mix-up: “there are things in life, which people just love.” Instead of looking at exquisitely lit home products, grammar fans everywhere cringe. In the New York Times newsroom, a 30-year veteran editor gets heartburn. Dogs howl outside the offices of the Modern Language Association.

Most English speakers only confuse which and that when they are used as relative pronouns, introducing relative clauses. Don’t worry if you can’t remember your grade school grammar instruction, you’ll know it when you see it:

I eat salad with a fork, which is an eating utensil.

I eat salad with a fork that is clean.

As you can see in the examples above, which introduces a clause that is added information—the sentence reads just fine without it, while that introduces a clause that is necessary to the meaning of the sentence. This method for remembering the distinctions between which and that serves for day-to-day use, but if you are writing copy for an advertisement, you need a copy editor. This is exactly the type of error that can slip through spell checking software.

The ad is trying to tell us that “things” exist in life, and that people just love “things.” This is vague, at best. At worst, the ad ends up telling us that “things” exist in life, and oh by the way, people just love life: still vague, and now weirdly preachy. Clearly, the copywriters should have used that, not which. Miele later corrected their error in the text below the video, but recording a new voice-over is more expensive than editing YouTube descriptions.

For some reason, people often use which in place of that when they wish to sound posh or formal, as Andy Bernard of The Office would have it in this hilarious whoever/whomever debate (1:25). At N2, we believe in professionalism through proficiency, not just trying to sound fancy.

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