We had a long discussion about the word ‘that’ a while back, talking about all of its various uses and also where it might not be needed. If you missed it, click here for the post: That Dratted “That”
Today we tackle the ‘that, which, or who” quandary. The current trend is to ignore which relative pronoun is correct and to instead use the one that sounds best. While this is the easy way of dealing with the problem, here is the correct way of using them.
Which refers only to things.
Who (whom/whose) refers only to people.
That/these normally refers to things, but can refer to a class or type of person.
Ms. Mary is the teacher who will start singing if the class gets out of line. [Who refers to Ms. Mary.]
That is a story which will remain timeless. [Which refers to the one timeless story.]
Those are stories that will remain timeless. [That refers to the type of stories which will remain timeless.]
In the past teachers taught that that should be used with restrictive modifiers and which should be used with nonrestrictive modifiers.
These are the instructions that came with the kit. [the modifier ‘that came with the kit’ is necessary to the sentence making it restrictive]
The instructions, which look complicated, are in the box. [The modifier ‘which look complicated’ can be removed from the sentence, making it nonrestrictive]
Confused yet? Consider this – using which for a restrictive modifier often makes a sentence sound better. This is especially true when the sentence already uses the word that.
Which brings us back to where we started – using what sounds best and not worrying about the rest! Now that you know why, don’t you feel better about doing it?