That, Which, Who: which should you use?

That, Which, or Who? Which word should you be using, in which situations, and why?

Are there any simple rules, or guidelines, to help you, and how consistent are they?

I’m writing, of course, about confusion in situations like this:

Julie was the first runner that crossed the finish line.
(or should
that be replaced by who, or which?)
The firemen that responded came from Ladder Company #6.
     (or should that be replaced by which, or who?)
All licenses that were issued before January 10th will be recognized.
      (or is which better than that here?)
All licenses, which were issued before January 10th, will be recognized.
(or is
that more appropriate than which?)

Let me share what Bryan Garner (ever informative, usually pithy, frequently amusing) has to say on the topic, specifically the distinction between that and which:

     You’ll encounter two schools of thought…First are those who don’t care about any distinction…who think that which is more formal than that…They say that modern usage is a muddle. Second are those who insist that both words have useful functions that ought to be separated, and who observe the distinction rigorously in their own writing…
     You ought to know something more about these two groups: those in the first probably don’t write very well; those in the second just might. (DMAU, 647)

They just might…they just might.

I suspect there is no writer – at least no good writer – who hasn’t at some point stopped and pondered the options. Many occasionally agonize over it (some frequently).

The discussions of this topic in reference works get quite lengthy. There’s fodder for several different posts here: the distinction between relative pronouns; required versus optional that; the difference between (and declension of) who and whom and whose; and so on. (It’s likely that I’ll revisit some of these in future posts.)

The Chicago Manual of Style devotes approximately four detailed and interesting pages to these (and interrelated) topics. Garner gives them about six pages (in the 1998 edition).

The AP Stylebook commits only a little less than two full pages, including the complete entry on essential clauses, nonessential clauses. Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m sometimes critical of AP’s advice and logic, for several reasons, but in this case they sum it up best:

Use that and which in referring to inanimate objects and animals without a name. Use that for essential clauses, important to the meaning of a sentence, and without commas: I remember the day that we met. Use which for nonessential clauses, where the pronoun is less necessary, and use commas: The team, which finished last a year ago, is in first place.
(Tip: If you can drop the clause and not lose the meaning of the sentence, use
which: otherwise, use that. A which clause is surrounded by commas; no commas are used with that clauses.) (AP Style, 272)

Succinct, clear, correct, and easy to apply. Thanks, AP! You’re moving up in my estimation.

Of that and which, CMS notes that “in British English, writers and editors seldom observe the distinction between these two words” (CMS, 5.220, 298) . That’s an interesting comment, which Garner adds to: apparently, many believe that the essential/nonessential clause distinction did not exist as a “rule” of English until the Fowler brothers put it into writing in 1906. Garner shows this to be false (citing earlier grammars, from 1868 and 1898) , and argues fairly convincingly that the distinction is both effective and useful, and that it should be respected regardless of what date it became popular (DMAU, 648). A careful American reader might be left with the impression, from the comments in CMS and DMAU, that many Brits ignore this rule primarily out of spite, not grammatical utility.

So much for that and which. What about who? That might be obvious, from the implied opposite case not covered by that and which in the AP quote above. Here’s the follow-up:

Who is the pronoun used for references to human beings and to animals with a name (AP Style, 304). [I’ve cut this one short; at this point it slides into an explanation of who vs. whom.]

To offer an example: The player who fumbled the ball was vilified by his team’s fans. It is the player who fumbled, not the player that fumbled, or the player which fumbled. While the fans might not agree, he is a human being (or, if you must think of him that way, he’s an animal with a name; but one thing he’s not is an inanimate object).

That, in a nutshell, should tell you most of what you need to know when it comes to choosing among that, which, and who.

I’m not going to delve exhaustively into the sub-categories and related topics. But Garner has one other note that’s worth mentioning in the context of this post. What about the concatenated “that which” construction, as in: The result of the nomination process was very different from that which had been expected.

When this stiff-sounding noun phrase can be replaced with what, it generally should be” (DMAU, 650). There are, he shows, cases where that which (or those which, in plural) are acceptable. But my sample sentence above would best be written The result of the nomination process was very different from what had been expected. Minimize wordiness when you can: that which uses two words, is repetitive, and sounds awkward and pretentious; what is a single word, says what you mean, and is more colloquial.

As I’ve noted, there is a lot that can be said on this topic and all the similar ones that swarm around it. I hope this brief version helps you out – and if not, send me questions and comments, and I’ll address any confusion in better detail in the future.

= = = = =

Regarding those sentences at the top of this post:

Julie was the first runner who crossed the finish line.
     (Julie is a person, not an object.)
The firemen who responded came from Ladder Company #6.
     (While plural, the firemen are still people.)
All licenses which were issued before January 10th will be recognized.
(This is an essential clause, and written this way the sentence means that
only those licenses issued before the 10th will be recognized.)
All licenses, that were issued before January 10th, will be recognized.
(This is a nonessential clause, and written this way the sentence means that
all licenses – regardless of issue date – will be recognized.)


About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small business meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
This entry was posted in Grammar, Requested, Things you should know, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to That, Which, Who: which should you use?

  1. atarunomiko says:

    I think you meant “pretentious,” not “pretentios.”

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