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Who or Which or That?

People often confuse Who or Which or That and when they start to talk about when to use them, grammarians and supposedly learned people often talk rubbish.

Take these sentences for example:

The guy who stole your wallet was an actor.
The guy that stole your wallet was an actor.
The wallet that you lost was empty anyway!
The wallet which you lost was empty anyway!

Depending on who you ask, you’ll get people telling you some of these are wrong, some are grammatically offensive, some are painfully ignorant and so on with just one or two brave souls telling you they’re all fine.

But the truth of the matter is that it depends on how you look at it. This article looks over these words and tries to separate prejudice from truth.

NB what we’re talking about here are relative pronouns; if you want to read more about those, see this article called Relative Pronouns in English Grammar.

Some Basic Ideas

Let’s start by looking at a few basic ideas about these words and when they’re usually used.

who

Who is perhaps the easiest one to use. If you’re talking about a person or a named animal (i.e. a pet, an imaginary reindeer, etc) then you can use who:

The girl who was here before me left her purse on the table.
David Bowie was the man who fell to earth.
My dog, who is almost 10 years old, spends most of the day snoozing.

That’s pretty straightforward and no one will start shouting at you if you use who like this.

which

This is easy also (if you don’t probe too deeply). If you are not talking about a person or named animal then use which.

The table which stood on this spot, had a purse on it.
The comet which fell to earth landed on my house!
The dogs which live in this neighborhood keep me awake at night.

So there you are. It’s all well and good. If you don’t use who use which.

Sort of.

that vs who

You see when we bring that into the equation then problems start to appear.

First off, you can use that to replace who.

The girl that was here before me left her purse on the table.
David Bowie was the man that fell to earth.
My dog, that is almost 10 years old, spends most of the day snoozing.

Now some more traditional grammarians will start to complain. They say that only who works with people. But the facts speak for themselves. Checking out the statistics1 we see loads of occurrences of that instead of who in the works of the literary greats (Chaucer, Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, etc) right down to the facile tweets from pointless celebrities.

So since loads of people use that in place of who, does this make it right? This is a question which is part of the prescriptive/descriptive grammar debate (see the link below for more on this).

that vs which

As if that wasn’t bad enough, there are also some issues with choosing between that and which.

Some people go on about restrictive and non-restrictive clauses. But what does this mean? Look at these two utterances:

The car which I parked at the bottom of the hill is at risk of being flooded.
The car that I parked at the bottom of the hill is at risk of being flooded.

In the first example with which I am saying that I have just one car and it could flood because I parked it at the bottom of the hill and it’s raining really hard now. By using which I’m giving you more information about the one and only car I have.

The second example is saying that I parked loads and loads of cars but the one I’m going to talk to you about is the one I parked at the bottom of the hill where it could be flooded. By using that I’m telling you about one car out of many.

Some grammarians will tell you that that introduces a restrictive clause (i.e. it restricts what I’m talking about; it chooses one from many) while which is non-restrictive and adds just some more information.

But having said that, other grammarians will turn round and say it’s all completely unfounded and you can hear those utterances either way and take whatever meaning you want from them.

To further complicate matters, it’s especially common to see which in all sorts of clauses whether they restrict or not:

The car which I parked at the bottom of the hill is at risk of being flooded.

This could mean either thing. It could mean I have one car or it could mean I parked loads and loads of cars and there’s no telling which I mean.

Problems & Solutions

That’s the problem with the relative pronouns who, that and which. How do you know which one to use?

If you look at the statistics (using n-grams, for example) you’ll see that roughly speaking:

  • who is used for people about 80% of the time
  • that is used for people about20% of the time
  • that is used for things about 60% of the time
  • which is used for things about 40% of the time

But these figures are likely to be wildly inaccurate and vary a lot depending on what person or thing we’re talking about. They should most certainly be taken with a huge pinch of salt which/that will make them taste awful.

that, which, who and TEFL

But let’s get practical. What happens in your TEFL class? What do you do when faced with a class of eager learners wanting to know the difference?

Personally I’d stick to these simple rules just to keep on the safe side but I wouldn’t bother too much about straying over them or even breaking them entirely when the urge took me:

  • First off, who is for people. Keep it simple and this is.
  • Everything else can be that or which. Makes no difference.

And then only when you get a sentence which is slightly ambiguous do you want to go into it in more detail with your class.

Now having written this I know some grammarians and coursebooks will start to complain and go on about restrictive and non-restrictive clauses and the purity of the English language and all that, but at the end of the day in 99% of cases whether you use that or which will not really impede communication and lead to the downfall of society.

Language at its most fundamental is all about communication and as long as using one or other of these words does not impede communication then we’re on the right track.

Emotional Distance

An interesting final note here. In journalism schools they sometimes teach that that puts emotional distance from the subject which who does not.

The hundreds of thousands of Rwandans who died during the genocide…
The hundreds of thousands of Rwandans that died during the genocide…

Do you need emotional distance? Are you trying to write a subjective or objective piece? Does changing the relative pronoun make a difference?

Perhaps it’s something worth thinking about.

Useful Links

Relative Pronouns in English Grammar – explaining what who, that and which are and how they fit into English grammar

Descriptive vs Prescriptive Grammars – do we tell people what to say or just listen to what they say?

What is a Clause?‏who, that and which introduce clauses; here the clause is explained

references

1. take a look at this n-gram graph of a typical example if you don’t believe me

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