What’s Up with “That”? (And “Which”?)

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Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of “restrictive” and “nonrestrictive” clauses. Knowing technical grammar terms is rarely important. Understanding how they function in the real world, on the other hand, is invaluable.

Part 1: When “That” and “Which” Are Interchangeable

“It was one of those pictures which are so contrived that the eyes follow you about when you move.” (Emphasis added.)

In the above sentence, “which” could have been “that,” and it also would have been correct.

In simple terms, without using a comma before “which,” “that” and “which” are interchangeable. Just make sure not to use “which” to refer to people; it is okay to refer to people with “that,” e.g., I know a girl that can speak 12 languages, but “who” is considered the better choice.

So far, so good?

Part 2: When They’re Not Interchangeable

“That” is used to introduce a restrictive clause. This is just a fancy way of saying that if you get rid of the clause, the meaning of the sentence will change.

Take a look at the following example:

That 1.png
That 2.png

See how we’ve completely changed the meaning of the sentence? The original sentence meant that only the games that demean women should not be sold at toy stores. But by deleting the restrictive clause, we are now saying that all video games should not be sold at toy stores.

Therefore, we use “that” to provide essential information (details that cannot be deleted) that specify exactly what thing or person you are talking about.


On the other hand, “which” is used to introduce a non-restrictive clause. The non-restrictive clause is “sandwiched” between commas. “Which” functions like parentheses:

Which 1.png

The above sentence means that all video games, by their very nature, demean women. This is much different in meaning from the previous sentence that used “that demean women.”

Which 2.png

Therefore, be careful when you choose whether to use “that” or “which”: choosing the wrong one can make you express an idea that you didn’t mean to.

Here is one more set of examples:

  • The spinning chair that I bought at IKEA is broken. = The only spinning chair that is broken is the one that I purchased at IKEA; the other spinning chairs (from other stores) are fine.
  • The spinning chair, which I bought at IKEA, is broken. = I have one spinning chair. I bought it at IKEA. It’s broken.

“You and I” vs. “You and Me”

Just about every week, someone asks us, "Is it 'you and I' or 'you and me'?" Well, if the question is phrased that way, there could only be one legitimate answer:

For some strange reason, many people are under the impression that only one of those is ever right. One of the points of this article is to disabuse people of such erroneous thinking.

The truth is that both “you and me” and “you and I” can be grammatically correct. Which one you need depends on what you’re trying to say.

The Interwebs are rife with misuse of “you and I” and “you and me,” a situation that is exacerbated by the fact that both Lady Gaga and One Direction have had hit songs called “You and I.”

Let’s look at One Direction’s “You and I”:

Both songs got it wrong. Here’s why:

Therefore, if “you and I” are performing the action, it should be “you and I”:

  • You and I are best friends.
  • You and I are supposed to work together.
  • You and I crossed the finish line at the same time.

If “you and I” are receiving the action, it should be “you and me”:

  • The teacher picked you and me as study partners.
  • My parents will give you and me a ride to school today.
  • John promised to take you and me to Disneyland.

If this isn’t clear to you yet, there are easier ways to understand it:

1. Prepositions

If something is happening at, for, with, by, to, from, between, beside, against, on, in, etc. someone, we need to use me (or him, her, us, them). For example,

  • Those jerks laughed at you and me when we slipped and fell.
  • Mom baked these cookies for you and me.
  • Let’s keep this embarrassing secret between you and me.

2. The Cross-It-Out Method

Cross out everything that comes before “I” or “me.” For example,

Whenever you hear questionable lyrics (in terms of grammar), check with us or anyone else you trust.

After all,

Sorry, Niall.