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I've been told that in complex sentences one must use "that" rather than "which" to refer the whole previous subsentence or a word in it, that is not right near to the preposition.

For example I couldn't use "which" in the sentence above:

one must use "that" to refer a word in an subsentence, that is not right near to the preposition.

Or I can't write:

I love fish and vegetables, which (fish and vegetables) is the most common food in Japan.

Is that a correct statement? When "which" can be used as a preposition in complex sentences?

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First, let me just correct your second sentence:

I love fish and vegetables, which are the most common foods in Japan.

Fish and vegetables are plural, so the rest of the sentence has to agree. Now, the concept to understand is that "which" is non-restrictive, whereas "that" is restrictive. Have a look at these:

I'm interested in attending one of the Ivy League schools, which are among the highest-rated schools in the world.
I'm interested in attending one of the Ivy League schools that are among the highest-rated schools in the world.

The first one says two things: I want to go to an Ivy League school. Ivy League schools are among the highest rated in the world. The first sentence doesn't restrict the first one; it provides additional related information.

The second one says only one thing: I want to go to an Ivy League school, but only an Ivy League school that is among the highest rated in the world (by implication, not one of the other Ivy League schools that is not among the highest rated in the world). This sentence is restrictive; the "that" clause restricts or qualifies the main clause.

Here is an article that covers the basics of the subject and gives more examples.

  • thanks, this is useful. But could you, please, explicitly answer to My question (yes or no) and comment on My two examples? – klm123 Jun 14 '14 at 15:48
  • Hmm. What about Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print? – jimsug Jun 14 '14 at 15:50
  • Additionally, it's not just the words but also the punctuation/prosody that define the restrictiveness of a sentence: The company which provides good service will be profitable; The company, which provides good service, will be profitable. – jimsug Jun 14 '14 at 16:04
  • You are correct that you couldn't use which in the first sentence. However, the first sentence is saying something that isn't quite true, as my answer should explain. Your second sentence isn't correct, which is why I corrected it. The examples I have given should show that you can correctly use either that or which in your sentence, depending on whether you love all fish and vegetables or only those that are the most popular foods in Japan. – BobRodes Jun 14 '14 at 16:08
  • @jimsug There are those who would argue that you should say "The company that provides good service will be profitable" and that "which" is misused in your example. I think it's rather a matter of style, though. If you want to be precise, you should probably use that for restrictive relative clauses and which for non-restrictive ones. Attorneys do this in contracts, for example, to avoid any sort of attempts to interpret a restrictive clause as non-restrictive. – BobRodes Jun 14 '14 at 16:15
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In the simplest terms:

"that" refers back to the noun before it:

My father made me read a book that I hate.

(=I hate the book)

"which" refers back to the situation before it:

My father made me read a book, which I hate.

(=I hate reading) -or- (I hate it when he makes me read)

  • This contradicts to answer of BobRodes. Could you comment on this? – klm123 Jun 15 '14 at 20:21
  • The way I see it "...fish and vegetables, which are the most common food" = these are the foods people most commonly eat; however "...fish and vegetables that are the most common food" = (only) the fish and vegetables that are common. In other words, "that" refers back to the "fish and vegetables," whereas "which" refers back to their role in the situation just stated. – CocoPop Jun 15 '14 at 21:48

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