I've been scouring the Los Angeles Times for errors lately, looking
for examples of mistakes useful to people like you and me. In the
past, I've seen doozies such as: "Police told the protesters to
disburse," which means write a check, instead of "disperse," which
means to scram. But of course, the week in which I'm actually looking
for fodder turned up nearly nothing.
The closest thing to an error I found wasn't a Times error at all.
It was in a quote, so it was the speaker's mistake, and it was a
pretty forgivable mistake to boot. A speaker used the word "which"
when he should have said "that." It's a subtle difference and a rule
that distinguishes American English from the queen's. And it goes
something like this:
"It was the closure of two plants which cost workers their jobs."
Is this right or wrong? True or false? Well, it's true that two
plants closing would reduce jobs, but the sentence is wrong in its
use of the word "which."
"Which" should only be used for things called nonessential
clauses. And if that sounds annoyingly grammar-like, not to worry.
You can skip the academic approach on this one and instead just apply
one of two simple tests to know whether to use "which" or "that."
Normally, a comma should come before "which," but not before
"that." That's because "which" should introduce only stuff that could
be lifted out of a sentence without changing the sentence's main
"The layoffs, which affected more than 100 people, were designed
to improve the company's ratio of operating expenses to income."
You could surgically remove the stuff between the commas and still
retain the main point of the sentence: that the layoffs were to
improve the bottom line.
"It was these layoffs that triggered workers' subconscious
See, if you were to nix the "that" and everything after it in the
second example, you would be nixing the whole point of the sentence
right along with it.
Here's an even simpler pair of examples of the correct use of
"that" and "which": "The car, which I was driving, is red," and,
"There is the car that I was driving."
This concept continued to confuse me until I practiced removing
clauses from sentences. Then it started to make sense and eventually
A more advanced version, and one I'm still working on, comes into
play when you're talking about people instead of cars. In these cases
you don't have to choose between "that" and "which" because it's
almost always a "who."
However, the above lesson is still useful in helping to understand
when to use commas in these "who" instances. Consider the difference
the commas make in the two following examples.
"Employees who do not own stock should not criticize corporate
"Employees, who do not own stock, should not criticize corporate
In the second case, the stock ownership issue is treated as
nonessential (also called "nonrestrictive," or, as I like to think of
it, "removable"). That second sentence says that no employee should
criticize corporate staff decisions. And it points out, as an aside,
that employees do not own stock.
In the first sentence, stock ownership "restricts" the group being
discussed. Employees who don't own stock are the only ones who should
Next week: The definition of "passive-aggressive."
* JUNE CASAGRANDE is a freelance writer. She can be reached at