Grammar Gremlins: That Which Who

That, which, and who are three little pronouns with a tendency to trip over one another. In most contexts, who refers to people, which refers to things, and that can refer to either people or things. Animals can throw a wrench into that neat arrangement, since we sometimes treat them as beings rather than things, especially in fiction, in which case they can also be who. Most of us assign these pronouns without thinking about it and rarely use the wrong one.

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The meaningful distinction between that and which comes into play when one or the other is used to introduce gremlin-3a clause within a sentence. In technical terms, that is used with a limiting or defining clause, which with a nondefining or parenthetical clause. Oh, sure, that explains it all.

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Actually, the difference is simple. If the clause can be omitted without changing the basic meaning of the sentence, use which and a pair of commas. If the clause is essential to the meaning of the sentence, use that without commas.

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The brown dog over there, which barks incessantly, belongs to my clueless neighbor.

(The dog belongs to the neighbor whether or not it barks, thus we have a nondefining clause which could be left out without losing the point.)

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The brown dog that barks incessantly is driving me crazy, and I’m going to call the police.

(The incessant barking is the point of the sentence, and the only reason for ratting out the clueless neighbor, giving us a defining clause.)

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Theodore M. Bernstein, who devotes almost five pages (442 to 446) of The Careful Writer to the proper uses of gremlin-2that and which, provides a lot more examples and technicalities, few if any of which fiction writers will ever fall over. (Note the use of who to introduce that nondefining clause.) He also points out that that is far more common in speech than is which, something to remember when writing dialog. Most people, real or fictional, are not nearly so careful about grammar when they talk.

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The difference between who and whom doesn’t get much respect in everyday speech, either. Who is the nominative case (the subject of a verb), while whom is the objective case (the object of a verb or preposition), not the “classier” alternative. Although Bernstein devotes two full pages (477 to 479) to the distinction, mostly examples of how to use them incorrectly in long, involved sentences, I will leave you with two examples of how to do it right in short ones.

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Who shall I say is calling? Who is the subject (who is calling?).

Whom did you wish to see? Whom is the object (you wish to see whom?).

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