Remember how I told you I was going to editor school?  I’m in the middle of the grammar review course, with an amusing instructor who divides people into two groups: pre-Hey, Jude and post-Hey Jude.  If you were born before Hey, Jude (1968), you learned grammar in school.  Those born after Hey, Jude missed out on the opportunity to diagram sentences.  Unfortunately, they also missed the chance to learn to speak and write correctly.  If you’ve never heard of Hey, Jude, u prly rt lik ths.

Grammar is not for the weak.  Consider this passage in today’s reading assignment:

However, when the relative pronoun who, which, or that is itself the subject of the relative clause, the verb in the relative clause must agree with the antecedent of the relative pronoun.

Got that?

What I really want to do here is tell you the difference between that and which.  Many bloggers use these words interchangeably, because they were born when Paul McCartney’s band was called Wings.  Here’s the scoop.

Use which if the part that follows could just as well be placed in parentheses or left out altogether.  For example:

The dog, which pees on the floor whenever the doorbell rings, will only eat pie a la mode.

Use that if the part that follows is essential to the sentence.  Like this:

The dog that ate the pie a la mode developed dog diabetes.

Note that the which clause must be preceded by a comma.  If you leave the comma out, you render the sentence unclear.  Consider:

The dog which pees on the floor whenever the doorbell rings will only eat pie a la mode.

If you leave the sentence in this condition, the reader may conclude that the dog eats pie a la mode whenever the doorbell rings.  And we wouldn’t want to give that impression, would we?

I’m glad we had this little chat, which has been fun for me.  I hope it has been a post that you will remember.



  1. I would say, “the dog, who pees on the floor whenever the doorbell rings, will only eat pie a la mode.”  But that’s because I play fast and loose with the grammar rules.  I took a linguistics course in college that was SOMETHING ELSE, re: diagramming.  It took diagramming to heights I previously couldn’t have imagined.

  2. I have to admit, I’m not a grammarian.  I depend quite a bit on that little green squiggly line in Word to tell me that sentences are awkward.  And I’m pretty sure that grammar check still doesn’t catch all the problems.  Then again, I was born in 1968, right on the cusp of the Hey Jude split, so I could go either way.   My point is this: as I writer I have come to depend on my editors 😉  

  3. @ordinarybutloud – According to The Gregg Reference Manual, which and that are used when referring to places, objects, and animals.  However, who is now often used when an animal is identified by gender or a pet is identified by name.  So: “Buster, who always pees on the floor when the doorbell rings, will only eat pie a la mode.”I think in conventional usage it may depend on the friendliness of the animal.  A dog might be a who while a camel would be a which.

  4. I was born after Hey, Jude and I did SO diagram sentences in school — and I actually loved doing it.  I am fascinated by grammar, which is why I think I would love to be an editor just like my knowledgeable friend TR.  (How did I do with the which/that thing?)

  5. So…in the following sentence, should “that” actually be “which?”  (Cuz i remmember thunking that but no one’s agreed withe me.)Agency X serves vulnerable men and women living with HIV/AIDS by providing housing, compassionate health care and supportive services that enhance the quality of our residents’  lives.

  6. @Cherie – You could use which (with a comma after services), but that would change the tone of the statement.  As it is, it suggests that the supportive services are specifically designed to enhance the quality of the residents’ lives.  With a which, it would be softer.  We provide these things.  Oh, and by the way, they enhance the quality of our residents’ lives. On a related note, I’ve come (at long last) to believe in the serial comma, and therefore would insert one after health care.  

  7. Wow, this is a really deep discussion. I never “got” to diagram sentences and I don’t feel any great lack because of it.  I had an 9th grade English teacher who, in advanced English class, got us to the point where we could identify what part of speech every single word in short paragraph was.  Yes, I used to know what gerunds were.  Wow, all this talk of grammar is making me scared to write sentences. I think I will just remember the lesson – which can be parenthesized (is that a word?) and who is essential to the sentence.  Thanks TR!

  8. Unfortunately, those of us that did diagram sentences in the preheyjudic era have a difficult time remembering where we put our reading glasses, let alone where we put our pie ala mode down when we went to answer the door, which turned out to be Jehovah’s Witnesses AGAIN.

  9. I know my grammar is now shot all to h**. I can’t even remember where the folder is that has some clippings to help me. It must be hard for you when you pop over to my site and see the errors. I now struggle with spelling words I once knew.

  10. I myself have never been a real fan of grammer rules or puctuation or any kind of thing that may impeed my stream ofconciousness that can alter what I want to put down when I”m thinking of something fun like playing softball in Canada over the next holidayweekend with pals and making sure that we do as well as we can.  Oh wait.  Something about that doesn’t seem right.

  11. “The Hey, Jude rule does not apply if there were nuns involved.”  LOL!!  I went to Catholic school and I was born in 1968, so I don’t know if that counts as pre or post Hey Jude.  We didn’t diagram sentences, but we definitely studied grammar.  Still, I knew there is a difference between “that” and “which” but I could not have defined it as you did, and I probably mistake the two often in my speech and writing.

  12. You would find my site’s grammar both impeccable {Hmm.. two ‘c’s looks ‘wrong’} and unimpeachable, however the difference between our styles is displayed here by your patient, humorous, and understanding tone.My postings on the subject toggle between disdainful humour and outright ‘eating, shooting, and leaving.’  Please do keep your finger in the dike, my friend. jsolberg/tel aviv

  13. I was born in 1971.  I went to public school, and I did diagram sentences.  Many of my fellow English majors at college had not had this experience, however.  They suffered greatly during ENG310, Origins and Structure of English.  I love to diagram sentences.  I’m kind of perverted that way.

  14. Shoot.  I was going to brag that I was born in ’74 (post Jude), and yet I nvr typ lk ths.  Now I’m feeling like I need to read through your grammar lesson one more time.  I think I use that all the time and seldom use which, which may explain my excessive use of parentheses.

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