Grammar focus – How to choose between that and which

A well-known journalist and broadcaster who regularly writes for national newspapers once said to a sub-editor colleague of mine on the phone: “If there are too many thats in my copy, just change a few of them to which.”

That and which are not interchangeable

The idea that someone of his experience and stature should think that and which are interchangeable was quite a shock. He could not even blame the education system, having been born at a time when junior schools handed out free milk and grammar was drilled into pupils.

In everyday chat you may expect to hear that and which mixed up but I can’t help wincing every time I hear a BBC news presenter get them in a muddle, or when I see them confused in print.


What does a sub-editor do?

Sub-editors are newspaper journalists responsible for laying out a page (words and images), correcting grammar and spelling and reworking copy so that it fits and makes sense.

They should also look out for any potential legal issues and bring them to the attention to the in-house lawyer, who may suggest rewording a phrase or taking it out altogether.

Finally, they are responsible for writing the headlines, standfirsts (the line or few lines that appear as a sub header beneath the headline) and picture captions.

In recent times newspapers have massively reduced the number of sub-editors in their employ and on the freelance roster. Indeed it is not exceptional today for writers to log their words directly on to the screen with few checks and balances.


The Guardian Style Guide

Every newspaper worth its salt has a style guide it will expect its sub-editors to follow. This is to ensure consistency – for example, to avoid seeing World War II written on one page and Second World War on the next – as well as grammar and spelling.

The Guardian Style Guide has been going in one format or another for an astonishing 85 years. It is accessible online at and there’s a print version available from

It has this to say about that and which

This is quite easy, really: “that” defines, “which” gives extra information (often in a clause enclosed by commas).


Changing the meaning of a sentence

Here are a few examples of how choosing that or which can change the meaning of a sentence:

The book that is on the table belongs to me.

The book, which is on the table, belongs to me.

In the first example, the person is distinguishing between the book that is on the table and all other books. This particular book, the one that can be seen on the table, belongs to this person.

In the second example, the fact that the book is on the table is incidental. The book, which happens at this moment to be on the table, belongs to me.

Here’s another example:

The cakes that were made by the children sold out.

The cakes, which were made by the children, sold out.

The first example suggests that there were other cakes not made by the children and that these other cakes didn’t sell out.

The second example suggests that all the cakes were made by the children and that they subsequently sold out.

Which is usually preceded by a comma as it is introducing a separate clause. There will be a second comma needed at the end of that clause if it doesn’t finish the sentence.


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