Today's post is a Style Tip I wrote several years ago for the Heart of America Christian Writers Network newsletter.
Remember that old baseball comedy routine, “Who’s On First?” The confusion centered on a player named Who.
“Who’s on first?” the comedian asks. “Who,” answers the second actor. From there the conversation circled endlessly.
Maybe you get the same feeling when you try to decide whether to use which or that.
According to The Chicago Manual of Style, this is the rule: use which to set off nonrestrictive clauses; use that to introduce restrictive clauses.
Oh yeah, now you get it – if only you knew what a nonrestrictive clause is.
Fortunately, the big orange book of style goes on to explain that a restrictive clause is one that is necessary to the sentence; therefore, a nonrestrictive clause would be . . . You get the idea.
Still puzzled? Here are some CMS examples to illustrate the point more succinctly:
Pizza that’s less than an inch deep just isn’t Chicago style.
Pizza, which is a favorite among Chicagoans, can be either bad for you or good, depending on how much of it you eat.
If, however, you take out the clause “which is a favorite among Chicagoans” from the second sentence, it still makes sense: i.e., pizza can be either bad for you or good, and whether or not it is a favorite among Chicagoans does not “restrict” this meaning; therefore the clause is nonrestrictive and should be introduced by “which” and set off by commas.
Or to put it another way – that which does not kill you, makes you a better writer.
Source: The chicago manual of style - 15th edition
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