When to Use “That,” “Which,” and “Who”

By Mark Nichol

The proper use of the relative pronouns who, that, and which relate the subject of a sentence to its object, hence the name. The question of which of the three words to use in a given context vexes some writers; here’s an explanation of their relative roles.

Who, Whom, and Whose

Who and whom refer only to people, and whose almost always does so:

“I have a friend who can help.”

“Whom you associate with is your concern.”

“The person whose jacket was left behind is the likely culprit.”

(Whose is sometimes used to refer to an object, as in “Notice the car whose headlights are off.” This awkward usage should be replaced by, for example, “Notice the car that has its headlights off” or, better, “Notice the car with its headlights off.”)

That

That refers mostly to things, though a class or type of person is also sometimes referred to by this pronoun:

“He has the key that fits in this door.”

“This is a team that is going places.”

“He’s the kind of doctor that volunteers at a clinic on his day off.”

Even though the previous sentence is technically correct, it’s usually best to maintain a distinction between people and not-people by using who in reference to a type of person: “He’s the kind of doctor who volunteers at a clinic on his day off.” (The use of that in association with people itself, however, is well attested, as in “I don’t like the kind of people that she hangs out with.”) But a class of people is always considered a thing, not a person, so a sentence like “This is a team who is going places” is never correct.

Which

Which, like that, refers to things, but a further consideration is that American English usage usually frowns on this word when it appears in a restrictive, or essential, clause, such as “I chose the card which is blank.” This sentence, which specifies a card among one or more others that are not blank, has a meaning distinct from “I chose the card, which is blank,” which refers to a single card and then describes it. (This is an example of a nonrestrictive, or nonessential, clause.)

To further clarify that distinction, the restrictive form is generally illustrated by using that in favor of which, which is reserved for a nonrestrictive function, as in the preceding phrase. (One exception occurs when which is preceded by another usage of that, as in the sentence “What is good is that which is natural.”)

(This form is sometimes called nonessential because the information that follows which is not required. In the first sample sentence, which is better rendered “I chose the card that is blank,” the card’s blank state is essential to the context. In “I chose the card, which is blank,” all we need to know is that the card was chosen; its quality of blankness is incidental.)

Many writers and speakers of American English deplore the artificial distinction of favoring that over which in restrictive usage, but it is practical and well established — two valid criteria for any variation in purely logical grammar.

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23 Responses to “When to Use “That,” “Which,” and “Who””

  • Garland

    “I don’t like the kind of people that she hangs out with” – in this sentence as in other quoted examples, the word ‘that’ should be eliminated.

  • Bill

    The most widely and often violated of this is using “that” instead of “who” to refer to people. When I see it it alerts me and, sure enough, the prose or speech that follows is usually sub-par.

  • Matt Gaffney

    Again, overall, very helpful advice, yet two points would not be out of place.

    First, in re restrictive/non-restrictive clauses, a good rule of thumb to help writers identify them is to put the questionable clause between parentheses. If what’s left doesn’t change the meaning of the initial sentence and if the clause within the parentheses is manifestly explanatory rather than essential, it’s a non-restrictive clause.

    Second, the example “He’s the kind of doctor that volunteers at a clinic on his day off” and “I don’t like the kind of people that she hangs out with” implies that “that” and, later, “which” refers to “doctor” or “people.” That’s incorrect. The relative pronouns in question refer to “kind.” Look carefully: “kind of doctor” and “kind of people.” It’s subtle and, perhaps, too nuanced for most writers. One could just as easily say “I don’t like the kind that she hangs out with” or “He’s the kind that volunteers at a clinic on his day off.”

  • Warsaw Will

    As many linguists point out, it is the comma (or a pause in speaking) that tell us whether a relative clause is restrictive or not. This artificial “that / which” distinction apparently started as a suggestion of Fowler’s and got taken up big time by some US newspaper style guides. But if this distinction is so necessary to avoid confusion, why don’t we get confused by relative clauses with who? We don’t. Because of context an that comma. So this distinction is really not necessary; criticism of those who don’t make it is known amongst linguists as “which-hunting”.

    @Bill – there is no violation here at all – good writers have been using “that” for people for centuries and modern grammars teach that “who” and “that” are both possible in restrictive relative clauses when referring to people. And that’s what we teach in EFL and ESL. In practice, the more personally familiar to somebody, the more we’re likely to use “who”, but there is absolutely nothing ungrammatical about sentences like “Anybody that uses ‘that’ for people is uneducated” or “People that say this is an error are mistaken”. You might not like it from a style point of view, but the only rule it violates is self-imposed.

  • Rachel

    I have question regarding the use of “whose.” While “who” and “whom” refer only to people, my understanding is that “whose” can be used for both people and things.

    For example: “I went to Kalamazoo College, whose mascot is the Hornet.”

    Is there a word other than “whose” that could/should be used in this context? I suppose an alternative would be, “I went to Kalamazoo College, the mascot of which is the Hornet,” but this feels clumsy.

    Any insight would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!

  • Stan Carey

    What on earth is “purely logical grammar”?

    The bogus that/which distinction is not only unnecessary, as Warsaw Will says, it can also cause confusion, as I’ve shown on my blog.

  • Marian Lacey

    Regarding the distinction in usage between that and which, should a comma always precede “which” in a non restrictive clause? Furthermore, in this same context, is it ever correct to use a comma before “that” In a restrictive clause?

  • thebluebird11

    Hmm. Very confusing to me. I never paid much attention to the that/which issue until I got a computer with Word and spellchecker, and it would correct every “that” to “which.” I finally gave up and gave in, and so it goes, with a comma before every “which,” the whole 9 yards, whatever the spellchecker says, just move on.
    I am pretty strict about using “who” for people, though, while I find that many other people, mostly ESL-ers, use “that.” Maybe this is something from their native language, which either has no distinction, or always uses whatever their equivalent of “that” is. Or maybe their language DOES have a distinction and/or an equivalent of “who” to be used for reference to a person, and they don’t speak their native languages correctly either LOL.
    LOL @Warsaw Will and which-hunting. Cute.

  • Dale A. Wood

    @Garland: “SHOULD NOT be eliminated” !
    Linguistically and grammatically, the subordinating conjunction “that” must be there, and the elimination of it is merely LAZY speech and writing.

    To introduce the subordinate clause in that sentence, either “whom” or “that” is required. I repeat: there is a subordinate clause there, and it needs either a subordinating conjunction or a relative pronoun to introduce it. Where do you get your fantasies?

    My Mother was an excellent high school English teacher in the United States for many years, and she was a graduate of a respected state university in Tennessee.

    Omitting the words “that”, “who”, “whom”, “which”, or “whose” is a frequent cause of confusion.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    @Warsaw Will: “And that’s what we teach in EFL and ESL.”

    Sir, you are obviously teaching watered-down English is those courses and not the real thing. Therefore, anything that you say derived from those courses is nonsense.

    This series about English is about the Real Thing, and not about watered-down or Basic English for foreigners.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    @Matt Gaffney – I disagree with you completely. For example, “who” and “whom” are relative pronouns, and their antecedents are the noun or pronoun that immediately precedes them.

    For example: He who wishes to write about pronouns needs to know about their antecendents.

    In “doctor who” or “doctor whom”, the antecendent of the pronoun is “doctor”. There is no choice in the matter. Likewise, in “doctor that”, the subordinating conjunction refers to “doctor”.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    The relative pronoun “which” has
    1. “which” for its subjective case.
    2. “which” for its objective case.
    3. “whose” for its possessive case.

    Actually, we could very well argue that “which” refers to inanimate objects and plants, and these things are incapable of possessing anything, so in this case, “which” does not have a possessive case.

    On the other hand, higher animals like dogs, cats, horses, gorillas, chimpanzees, monkeys, and lions are capable of possessing things, so in this case, “which” does have a possessive case. For example:

    A. “This is the lion whose den we saw yesterday.”
    B. “You mean that that is the lion which has a very long tail?”
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    @thebluebird11:
    You said: “spellchecker, and it would correct every “that” to “which.”

    Sorry to have to tell you this, but spell-checkers do not have anything to do with changing “that” to “which”.

    That is a grammar checker, and grammar checkers are NOTORIOUSLY unreliable – and they are practically useless, as was discussed in a recent article in this very column. That was one that I completely agree with. Artificial Intelligence HAS NOT come remotely close to being able to do accurate grammar checks. We engineers and good computer scientists call the products that have been attempted “ARTIFICIAL STUPIDITY”.

    A spell-checker will notice “snaekbite” and then suggest that you needed “snakebite”. That is what spell-checkers do, and I also insist that “spell-checker” is the write spelling. This is just like “president-elect”, which is always hyphenated, and it is never “presidentelect”.
    Likewise for vice-admiral, vice-president, and so forth.
    D.A.W.

  • thebluebird11

    @DAW: Guess I am a bit lazy in that way. Spellchecker, grammar checker, whatever. Hyphen, no hyphen, in this case because my nickname among some friends (actual and virtual) is spellchecker so I always write it that way. Seems to me that it shouldn’t really need a hyphen because it is not prone to mispronunciation (like co-worker) or confusion (like log in vs log-in), etc. Nevertheless you are correct that today, 03/27/2013, it is hyphenated. Who knows what tomorrow will bring?

  • Shanker Bakshi

    What kind of language is this which has so many confusion about the uses of word “that/which”?

  • MELewis

    Hello,

    This is a useful article! However, I have a couple of suggestions for improvement:

    1) The layout is confusing with the ‘widow’ of the first sentence appearing just below your visual which itself includes words

    2) The opening sentence is somewhat ‘grammatically challenged’ for an article on grammar! “The proper use of the relative pronouns who, that, and which relate the subject of a sentence to its object, hence the name. ” Should it not be ‘relates’?

    Cheers,
    Mel

  • Garland

    @Dale A Wood. In the following sentence, the word ‘that’ serves no purpose and should be eliminated as I stated earlier.

    “I don’t like the kind of people that she hangs out with”

    But, as you stated, it may be a fantasy to want to clean up redundant, misused, and unnecessary clutter from the language.

  • Warsaw Will

    @thebluebird11 – it depends on the language – in French for example, “que” is the object relative pronoun for both people and things and is also used in that-clauses – “Je croix que je t’aime”, so they may be more likely to use “that”. But for Polish it’s the opposite, the relative pronoun is the same as the interrogative pronoun, so they prefer “who” or “which”.

    But I think the truth is that it mainly comes from us native speakers. You may not have noticed it, but a lot of us use “that” on occasion, especially after indefinite words like “person”, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it. If you do an Ngram for “somebody who, somebody that” and “anybody who, anybody that”, you’ll see they were used equally in books until about 1830 (before the prescriptivists started sticking their fingers in to everything).

    @Rachel -Stick with your original example; it’s fine. Fowler agrees with you that the late placing of “of which” is cumbersome, and advocates “whose” for things as well as people. Oxford Dictionaries say of “whose” – “used to indicate that the following noun belongs to or is associated with the person or thing mentioned in the previous clause”. Both Shakespeare and Milton used it to refer to things.

    @D.A.W. – In fact, ESL/EFL learners get a damn sight better grammar education than most native speakers. But yes, we do teach the actual language that speakers of standard English use, rather than the artificial language that prescriptivists would have us teach. I know which is “the real thing” alright, but perhaps that’s what you mean by “watered-down English”. As for basic English! Huh! My students are mainly advanced or proficiency level.

    @Garland – who says? Yes, we often do miss out “that” in restrictive relative clauses (unless it refers to the subject) – “The man I love”, just like we can often miss out “that” in that-clauses – “He said (that) you were to call him back”. But there’s no rule (that) says (that) you have to. It’s purely a matter of choice. There’s a lot too much of “you should do this” and “you shouldn’t do that” around. How about just using your good judgement?

  • Gordon Havens

    Relative pronouns is a subject that/which has stymied me all my life.

  • thebluebird11

    @WarsawWill: Merci, je croix que je t’aime aussi LOL. In French, that is so, you can’t leave out the “que.” In English, people do get away with leaving it out. I generally like to keep the “that” in there; I think that depending on the sentence (see, I just put a “that” in there), having a “that” in there kind of gives you an idea of what’s coming up, so you don’t go headlong into a phrase that comes to a halt or some surprising ending, making you double back and reread it. AFA your comment @Garland, my theory is that as long as everyone easily understands what you’re trying to get across, the first time around, you’ve succeeded. If people don’t understand, or if they have to double back to figure out what you’re getting at, you should revise. Obviously having someone (or some-two) proofread one’s work is beneficial in confirming this.

  • Garland

    @warsaw will You are correct. There is no grammatical rule that states the word ‘that’ should be eliminated in the sentence example. As far as I know, there is no rule against redundancy in general. That does not make it correct. It simply makes it not in error.

  • Glynis Jolly

    I have always used ‘which’ when the clause further describes something about a subject to clear any confusion.

    I rarely use ‘whom’. Somewhere in my early years of education I was told that a person could use ‘who’ or ‘whom’ when some will only use ‘whom’. I chose to go the easy route.

  • Justine Jargon

    First, I love and appreciate your website! I would like a less confusing explanation for adolescents. Specifically with describing the terms, “restrictive” and “non-restrictive.” I also was taught that the relative pronoun, “that,” refers to something specific and the relative pronoun, “which,” refers to something not so specific when determining when to use these two words in a sentence.

    Here is the explanation given above… and I would appreciate more examples. They usually help with understanding the concept… Thanks again!

    “This form is sometimes called nonessential because the information that follows which is not required. In the first sample sentence, which is better rendered ‘I chose the card that is blank,’ the card’s blank state is essential to the context. In ‘I chose the card, which is blank,’ all we need to know is that the card was chosen; its quality of blankness is incidental.”

    Your feedback is appreciated!

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