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Found this in my 9th-grade sister’s English textbook.

Fill the blank with a relative clause.

  1. The movie ( ) I saw yesterday was good.
  2. That is the chair ( ) I made yesterday.

The answer for 1. was “which” and/or “that”, while the answer for 2. was just “that”. I couldn’t see much difference between these two sentences. Can somebody tell me what is happening here?

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  • The textbook seems a bit suspicious; for example, the 'which' and/or 'that' in answer 1. And 'which' is also acceptable in sentence 2. What does the textbook say in its explanation of this aspect of grammar? Presumably there is some introductory analysis. I would also be interested to know the name of the textbook.
    – Shoe
    Nov 12 '19 at 11:09
  • Shoe > Interestingly, the textbook didn’t give me any explanation on the question 2, which is exactly why I posted this. The textbook is an original one my sister’s school (just an ordinary Japanese high school) made several years ago. Nov 12 '19 at 11:36
  • The issue of that or which has come up several times on this site; for example, in this question whose accepted answer contains a link to a blog post on the topic by Geoff Pullum, co-author of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language: english.stackexchange.com/questions/78/… . Basically, both are acceptable to authoritative linguists but not necessarily to all language mavens.
    – Shoe
    Nov 12 '19 at 12:17
  • In both cases, "which" and "that" would be grammatical. But in 2. two "thats" night be considered stylistically inelegant by some speakers (not me), who would prefer "which"
    – BillJ
    Nov 12 '19 at 12:18
  • Note that having no relative pronoun would also be acceptable. Nov 12 '19 at 21:02
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A couple of good references that came up with a quick Google search:

In summary, which one to use depends on whether the information being added is essential to the meaning of the overall sentence or not.

In the first sentence:

The movie ___ I saw yesterday was good.

this actually may depend a bit on context. If the "I saw yesterday" is just a "by the way" sort of thing, and you already know from context which movie you're talking about (so you could say "The movie was good" and it means basically the same thing), then it is being used for a nonessential clause, and which would be the appropriate word there. If, on the other hand, "I saw yesterday" is important to correctly identify what movie you're talking about (i.e. there's a choice of movies and you're identifying which one you mean), then it's an essential clause, and that would be the appropriate word in that case.

In the second sentence:

That is the chair ___ I made yesterday.

The "I made yesterday" is pretty clearly the point of the sentence, and is being used to identify which (of potentially multiple) chairs we're talking about, so it is an essential clause. So in that case, that is the appropriate word to use here.

That having been said, those are the official rules, but in practical terms, most people use the two words pretty interchangeably these days, and in the case of the second sentence I suspect some people would find the repetition of "that" two times in close proximity to sound inelegant, and might actually prefer using which instead, even though it's not actually grammatically correct.

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  • Thanks! These phrases in my sister’s textbook had absolutely no context - just “fill the blanks”, a couple of phrases which are absolutely not related to each other, that’s it. I knew both were grammatically correct but it was interesting to hear about small nuances of which and that! Nov 16 '19 at 3:18

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