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In Microsoft Word, the grammar engine in certain situations suggests either placing a comma before which or replacing it with that (and not using a comma).

Does the meaning of a sentence ever change between these two alternatives of , which and that, or is this just a style choice?

Here is a similar question that/, which was posed where the accepted answer states in part:

Supplementary (or non-defining, or non-restrictive) relative clauses are by convention set off by commas and integrated (or defining, or restrictive) relative clauses are not.

Would the use of that be more appropriate for a defining or restrictive relative clause?

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  • There are some prescriptive grammarians who insist that which should only be used for non-restrictive clauses and that should be used for restrictive clauses. I think this rule only manages to confuse people, as it's not what native English speakers usually do in speech. – Peter Shor Feb 26 '15 at 18:16
  • @PeterShor - There is a very interesting article in the latest New Yorker (the 80th anniversary edition), by one of their editorial people, that touches on this topic. – Hot Licks Feb 26 '15 at 18:40
  • As to Word, it's suggestions are only that, suggestions, based on it's simple-minded rule set. It's not there to correct your English, but rather to help prevent "finger checks" where you leave a word out, start to type one word but change your mind and then forget to erase what you typed, etc. – Hot Licks Feb 26 '15 at 19:17
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With regard to to your question

Does the meaning of a sentence ever change between these two alternatives of ', which' and 'that' or is this just a style choice?

there is a famous instance from the 1984 Republican Party platform drafting debates that illustrates the significance that the choice between the two forms can have on sentence meaning. A draft of the taxation plank of that platform included a sentence that initially had this wording:

We therefore oppose any attempts to increase taxes which would harm the recovery and reverse the trend to restoring control of the economy to individual Americans.

Observers noted that if which were read as that—that is, as a restrictive clause—the effect would be that the platform opposed harmful tax increases but held out the possibility that certain tax increases might be harmless or even beneficial. (This was 1984, I hasten to reiterate, when such a reading of a Republican-authored document would have seemed not at all absurd.)

On the other hand, if which were read as the first word of a nonrestrictive clause, the wording "which would harm the recovery and reverse the trend to restoring control of the economy to individual Americans" would amount to a characterization of any tax increase.

According to Steven Hayward, The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counterrevolution: 1980–1989 (2009), a congressman from Texas named Tom Loeffler noticed the ambiguity and insisted that the sentence be clarified by adding a comma before which, thereby confirming the nonrestrictive nature of the phrase "which would harm the recovery and reverse the trend to restoring control of the economy to individual Americans." Loeffler's effort succeeded, the comma was inserted, and the Republican Party began its tradition of explicit theoretical opposition to all tax increases.


With regard to your question

Is Word always correct in suggesting either a comma before 'which' or else using 'that'?

the notion that a word-processing program might be correct in trying to force users to make an either/or decision when a third legitimate choice (restrictive use of which) is available is, in my opinion, untenable. I have used that and which in their Word-approved ways for so long that I do it almost unconsciously—which (I hope) is fine. But many writers, both in the past and in the present, use which in place of that in certain situations, and I have no trouble understanding what they mean. I see no reason to let Word dictate correctness or acceptability in such a case.

For me as a reader, a problem arises only when (as in the Republican Party platform example above) a writer perhaps intentionally uses which ambiguously to avoid getting pinned down to a particular meaning. A comma is an easy thing for a reader (or writer) to miss, after all. But it seems to me that Word's effort to make writers choose between 'that' and ', which' may lead to more misstatements (from writers who mean one thing but haplessly choose the other under pressure from Word) than would have resulted if the program had simply butted out and let writers express themselves naturally.

  • Would the use of that be more appropriate for a defining or restrictive relative clause? – WilliamKF Apr 9 '15 at 1:23
  • That is appropriate at the start of a restrictive clause but generally inappropriate at the start of a nonrestrictive clause; which is appropriate at the start of a nonrestrictive clause (with a comma preceding it) and at the start of a restrictive clause (if used consistently and intentionally in that way). – Sven Yargs Apr 9 '15 at 1:31

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