The ever-important subtlety of which that to use


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

became intuitive.

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

staffing decisions."

"Employees, who do not own stock, should not criticize corporate

staffing decisions."

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

not criticize.

Next week: The definition of "passive-aggressive."

* JUNE CASAGRANDE is a freelance writer. She can be reached at

Copyright © 2019, Daily Pilot
EDITION: California | U.S. & World