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A Word, Please: 'Which' or 'that' depends on style

July 20, 2012|By June Casagrande

The Wall Street Journal recently ran an article about the reportedly horrendous grammar that has become in the norm in the workplace.

The response was huge: Hundreds of commenters logged on to say that our language is in a state of catastrophic decline. A couple were astute enough to note that this seeming "decline" emerged from a shortsighted view of the constant evolution of language — the same process through which the words and grammar conventions we hold dear were born in the first place.

But those voices were drowned out by readers who seemed certain that the English language had achieved perfection at the exact moment they were learning about it, and that every change since has been an abomination.

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The response was so large that the Wall Street Journal's website followed up with an article about the response itself, plus a grammar quiz for readers. The 22-question quiz, supplied by Jack Appleman, of the Monroe, N.Y., company Successful Business Writing, covered a surprisingly narrow range of grammar issues, with five questions dedicated to possessives, three on the difference between "affect" and "effect," and another three asking about the difference between "principle" and "principal."

The most interesting thing about the quiz lay in its three questions about "that" versus "which." These questions included "Reports that/which are marked 'priority' must be reviewed quickly" and "The book is a reference guide that/which covers the entire industry." For either of these questions, if you chose "which," you got it wrong.

A few readers commented that the "that-vs.-which" questions were the only ones they missed. No doubt, some will take the lesson to heart, never again cavalierly using their ear to choose between "that" and "which." That's unfortunate, because in fact, the quiz's author was wrong.

Had this been a test on Associated Press or Chicago editing style, the questions would have been fine. In both these styles, "which" should not be used to introduce restrictive clauses.

A restrictive clause is one that narrows down the range of possible subjects. For example, if I say, "The reports must be reviewed quickly," I'm talking about a wide range of reports. But if I say, "The reports that are marked 'priority' must be reviewed quickly," I'm talking about a smaller set of reports — only the ones marked "priority."

Therefore, the clause introduced with "that" is restrictive, literally restricting the range of things referred to by the noun.

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