Pronoun Mistakes #3: Which Is Not for People

By Maeve Maddox

The following erroneous use of which appears in an article in The Huffington Post:

On New Year’s Eve at 11:45 am, Pope Francis called up the small community of the Carmelite nuns of Lucena in Cordoba, Spain, but they didn’t pick up the phone. Their once-large community has now dwindled to a mere five nuns, three of which are from Argentina, which is also the pope’s home country.

The second sentence should be written this way:

Their once-large community has now dwindled to a mere five nuns, three of whom are from Argentina, which is also the pope’s home country.

The pronoun who stands for human antecedents. Which is used with non-human antecedents. The object form of who is whom.

In the example, which is used correctly as a pronoun for the country of Argentina, but the nuns should be referred to as whom.

Here are some more examples of the misuse of which, together with corrections:

Incorrect: For the 2011 elections, this system allowed for 266 senators, 208 of which were elected and 58 of which were designated by the autonomous communities.
Correct : For the 2011 elections, this system allowed for 266 senators, 208 of whom were elected and 58 of whom were designated by the autonomous communities.

Incorrect: Our beliefs about blindness will affect how we act toward the blind children with which we work, our expectations for them, the way we teach them, the messages we give them. 
Correct : Our beliefs about blindness will affect how we act toward the blind children with whom we work, our expectations for them, the way we teach them, the messages we give them. 

Incorrect: My child’s last three classroom teachers, two of which were first years, were totally unprepared to teach.
Correct : My child’s last three classroom teachers, two of whom were first years, were totally unprepared to teach.

Incorrect: More people died in the firebombing that preceded the atomic bombs, many of which were civilians.
Correct : More people died in the firebombing that preceded the atomic bombs, many of whom were civilians.

Incorrect: This is the actual man on which the movie Django Unchained is loosely based.
Correct : This is the actual man on whom the movie Django Unchained is loosely based.

Incorrect: Your professional manner was admired by all of our guests, some of which hope to contact you in the future.
Correct : Your professional manner was admired by all of our guests, some of whom hope to contact you in the future.

Nuns, senators, children, teachers, people, man, and guests are all words that refer to human beings. They require the pronoun who or whom— never which.

Click here to get access to 800+ interactive grammar exercises!


Share


13 Responses to “Pronoun Mistakes #3: Which Is Not for People”

  • Kay Springsteen

    What’s even worse is when I hear people refer to THINGS as “who”. I transcribe dictated reports for physicians (presumably well educated), who often dictated such stellar sentences as “The artery who was blocked…” or “The medication, who was dosed at 5 mg…”

  • Kari

    Even the correction reads awkwardly, as though the atomic bombs are being referred to: More people died in the firebombing that preceded the atomic bombs, many of whom were civilians.
    Perhaps better: More people died, many of them civilians, in the firebombing that preceded the atomic bombs.

  • Freeman Presson

    In my lifetime, I have seen a change in usage allowing “that” to refer to people. That still grates on my ear, and I don’t know why “which” is supposed to be worse.

  • Bill

    I was going to say what Freeman Presson did. I have no idea why or when “that” became acceptable for use when talking about people, but it has (“He’s the kind of guy that …”). I’m glad I’m not the only one who finds it grating and Freeman’s right also about how short a jump it is from that to misuse of which. Worse than either of these is hearing so many intelligent people not having basic noun-verb number agreement these days. I hear things like “There is a lot of people here who …” multiple times a day now.

  • Zig

    Then what about those questions that I sometimes ask my college students: “WHICH of you have ever been to the US?”
    I’m an English teacher in Germany but not a native speaker, so please bear with me . 😉

  • Connie

    That which causes irritation to those of us who think ourselves to be grammatically correct is of little concern to those to whom a lot of this is merely nit picking. ;d I have a feeling that many people are just trying to avoid the “who/whom” dilemma when choosing to use either “that” or “which”. In my mind, only “who”, “whom”, or whose” should be applied to a person.
    Bill, I believe that the overuse of “a lot” (or “alot”, as I’ve seen it written so often) demonstrates a lack of imagination, anyway – especially when it’s used in reference to people.

  • Freeman Presson

    I agree with Connie. It’s possible that some people simply have trouble parsing ahead to decide the case of the pronoun. People similarly use “myself” in compounds to avoid “I/me” mistakes.

  • Kim Siever

    To answer the question “when did “that” became acceptable for use when talking about people,” consider this quote from A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage (p. 555):

    “That has been the standard relative pronoun for about eight hundred years and can be used in speaking of persons, animals, or things. Four hundred years ago, which became popular as a substitute for the relative that and was used for persons, animals, and things. Three hundred years ago, who also became popular as a relative. It was used in speaking of persons and animals but not of things.”

    So, the answer is “that” became acceptable for use when talking about people about 500 years before “who” did.

  • Connie

    Kim, according to Abbott and Costello, Who was on first. 🙂

  • thebluebird11

    well, I am so glad to see another medical transcriptionist in here. Hello, Kay! I totally agree with you, and with everybody else here who is irritated when people make this particular mistake. I constantly need to correct people and tell them, people are who or whom, not that or which. So annoying!

  • Curtis Manges

    “Incorrect: More people died in the firebombing that preceded the atomic bombs, many of which were civilians.”

    Of course it’s incorrect. NONE of those atomic bombs were civilians; they were all military!

  • thebluebird11

    LOL @Curtis…yes that sentence is badly constructed.

  • Chris Richard

    The sad thing is that The Huffington Post, that shameless thief of writers’ work, that relentless purveyor of cheesecake shots paired with a parody of serious news, should have risen to a point on the Internet where it could be considered a cultural influence or indicator.
    I certainly agree with the “that” complaints

Leave a comment: