Recently I decided to take on the daunting task of examining every usage of “that” in my 86,000 word novel. Am I crazy? Possibly. I was born and raised in the Midwest, and the over-use, (and often incorrect use) of “that” is a hallmark of our lovely Midwestern accent. It’s part of what makes us neat. But—as we all know—the things we can get away with in speech, can fail in writing.
I went into the “that” v “which” battle fairly confident; I was a bit rusty, but I knew at one point in life, I had a solid understanding of the difference between “that” and “which.” As in most fights, it’s the punch you don’t see that brings you down. When it came to my own writing, I could hardly see “that” when I read over my book. I ended up using the handy “Find” function on my Mac, and manually looking at each “that.” I don’t know what the normal percentage is for “that” usage, but mine was well over a thousand; I’m definitely embarrassed by this, even though I don’t know if I should be.
At first I tried to correct any “that” v. “which” issues by ear. This works is some cases, but after about a 100 or so looks, the use of “which” started to sound extremely British to me. To help me deal, I used two solid websites to navigate the nuances of the “that” v. “which” battle (which gets even more complicated when “who” steps into the ring as well). They are: How to Use “That” and “Which” Correctly: 4 Steps (with Pictures) and Relative Clauses: The Writing Center at UNC-Chapel Hill. I went back to these websites quite often until I found my “that” v. “which” rhythm.
I wouldn’t exactly call this process fun, but it was well worth the effort because I was able to reduce my overall word count by 500. When you correct “that” v. “which” errors, you will need to examine your use of description because, after all, using “which” is essentially providing non-essential information to the clause. When I found an error, if I couldn’t change the sentence structure easily (or if it sounded too British), then I had to ask myself if I really, really wanted the description in the first place.
Most of the time, if the sentence structure became awkward after correcting a “that” v. “which” error, I removed the description. However, there were sometimes where I decided to stylistically keep the error. I fully realize I may be looking for justifications, but I found some interesting reasons to keep a “that” v. “what” error.
- Reason 1: “which” doesn’t contract—basically, you can have “that’s” but you can’t have “which’s.” So “a bicycle that’s built for two”, should really be, “a bicycle, which is built for two,” but screw that—this is one of the benefits of being a creative writer.
- Reason 2: I almost always kept an incorrect “that” in dialogue—like seriously, I may have only switched this once or twice. I have reasons for this as well. 1) My protagonist is from Chicago, so I’m going to keep the Midwestern accent for her. 2) My characters are not British, and as mentioned above, “which” sounded way too British to me or at the very least, more formal than what I was going for. 3) I learned in grade school that authors can do whatever they want in dialogue (this isn’t a real belief of mine, it’s just something that got me through usage number 928 to 976 of “that”—so don’t judge).
The nice thing about “that” and “which” is most of the time, they can grammatically be eliminated if you play around with the sentence structure. So once you hit your “that” v “which” rhythm, you can make your own stylistic choices. I decided to keep “that” between two nouns, but I removed “that” between a noun and a verb. You may choose to do something different, and it can still be correct. But that’s why I love writing. It’s the opposite of math.
I’m not going to lie, stepping into the “that” v. “what” ring was painful at times, but overall, I came out victorious. I’m much more confident in the flow and tone of my narrative. My wordiness is reduced, and I feel more in control of the sentences. I may have a few bruises, but my writing is much tighter as a result.