Grammar is Back! The ‘That, Which, or Who’ Debate

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?

Happy writing!



About Jodi

Jodi L. Milner is a writer, mandala enthusiast, and educator. Her epic fantasy novel, Stonebearer’s Betrayal, was published in November 2018 and rereleased in Jan 2020. She has been published in several anthologies. When not writing, she can be found folding children and feeding the laundry, occasionally in that order.
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18 Responses to Grammar is Back! The ‘That, Which, or Who’ Debate

  1. Ah, well… then there is always:

    That that is, is. That that is not, is not. But that that is not is not that that is, and that that is is not that that is not. Is it?

  2. Agatha82 says:

    I found that entire post very useful 🙂

  3. Heather says:

    Easy for you to say!

    I ALWAYS appreciate these grammar posts–I need the constant re-inforcement. Thank you. 🙂


  4. nrhatch says:

    Grammar is Back
    With That Dreaded THAT!
    Which, That or WHO?
    I hadn’t a clue
    Writing’s such a bitch
    When THAT fights with WHICH

    Thanks, Jo!

  5. oldancestor says:

    I’m not saying it’s rational, but using “which” as a restictive modifier grates onmy nerves. It might not be wrong, but I don’t like the way it reads or sounds.

  6. jenniferneri says:

    can’t tell you how much THAT has plagued me during editing.

  7. I guess I’ll have to get out my Strunk and White. I need to review the use of which and that.

  8. Lulu says:

    Grammar post is one of the things I am looking forward to reading in your blog.

  9. I always love clear explanations of grammar. Thanks so much for sharing these and the examples.

  10. cindy says:

    I made a diary note the day you posted it, to come back and read. This is something I encounter a lot as an editor and I’ve now printed your post to keep. Thanks.

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