Are you using that, which, and who incorrectly in your writing?
Relative pronouns aren’t limited to what we’ll talk about today, but I often see these three used incorrectly: which, that, and who.
While they seem synonymous, they’re actually quite different. I won’t use too many literary terms to describe these: restrictive relative clause, non-restrictive clause, etc. I’m not here to make this complicated. So, let’s go through these one at a time. First, though, I want to cover one thing.
If I’ve edited your work, you’ll notice I remove “that” in many instances. If your sentence says, “My book is the one that I put on the table last night,” I’ll remove the relative pronoun, which is “that.” This isn’t because your sentence is incorrect. It’s because, in this case, “that” is formal English, and few people speak formally. It reads perfectly fine without it.
So, I wanted to say that first because while it’s not wrong, when you remove “that,” it doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence and it also proves to be more colloquial.
“That” is used most often, and there’s a good reason for it. It can be used to describe any kind of noun. As an added tip, you’ll never use a comma when you use “that” because it’s usually a defining clause that follows. I know I said I wouldn’t use grammar terms, but I lied. “That” is used with a restrictive clause, meaning the meaning of the sentence would be lost without the description.
Dogs that chew on shoes should probably be let outside.
If I took out the descriptive phrase there, the sentence wouldn’t make sense or it would be missing necessary information. “…that chew on shoes” tells us why a dog would need to go outside. It makes sense without it, but the context is misleading. Here’s another example.
He’s the one that I saw wearing your shoes.
Hopefully that helps if the first one didn’t. Now, there’s a little trick here. If I had said, “The man that helped me is going home now,” you’ll notice that the context of the sentence remains relatively unchanged when I remove “that helped me.” Funnily enough, “that” is correct when using it informally. It’s colloquial, but it has a “correct” replacement.
When talking about people, it’s common to use “who” instead of “that” in both formal and informal language. Keep in mind that formal doesn’t necessarily mean eloquent English. It’s simply a style. In the above example, especially since the clause is non-restrictive, meaning the clause does not change the meaning of the sentence, “who” is a good replacement.
This isn’t mandatory, but it gives personality to your sentence. Keep in mind that “who” specifies a person. Think about this scenario.
He’s the kid that sweeps floors.
He’s the kid who sweeps floors.
You may or may not notice a little more respect emanating from the second example. Calling a dog “that dog” is less appreciative than calling a dog “my dog.” It’s a similar situation. When you refer to someone as a “who” or “whom,” you’re giving them a positive connotation without directly doing so. This is a form of writing consciously. Abusive relationships involve “that” in dialogue often, sometimes consciously and other times because of the mindset provided. You don’t realize it, but you know these rules already. You understand the connotations that follow.
When someone asks who your kid is and you say, “That one,” you’re not being negative. That’s not what this is. Simply put, connotations come with the word choices, and when you use “that” in restrictive clauses (again, descriptions that are necessary in a sentence), sometimes it sounds that way.
What about things, though? Or creatures? You can’t call a cat or a table a who. And, that isn’t always restrictive, either.
The table that I painted myself is still in the garage.
This is another word used in non-restrictive clauses. Information that doesn’t change the context of the sentence, like the one above, will use this word when animals or inanimate objects are used.
The table, which I painted myself, is still in the garage.
Notice that I used commas. “Which” is a word that needs commas before and after the clause. Similar to the description rule that says to use commas when non-restrictive clauses are used, the same goes here. (Ex: “My dad, the firefighter, picked me up from school.” See how the description of dad doesn’t affect the sentence? It’s separated by commas. “Firefighter Bob Arnold walked over to me,” however, doesn’t require commas because it’s before the proper noun, but that’s another blog post. Another time.)
Funny rule about that
Yeah, we’re circling back. When you’re unsure, you can almost always use “that.” I’ll say that now. You know, after you’ve read everything else.
But there are times when the clause is part of the sentence and you could do without it, but “that” is still good to use.
I want to know everything that happened between you two.
There are few things that I don’t enjoy doing.
If I remove everything after the first object (everything, sandwich), the sentence’s meaning doesn’t change. But, if I switch “that” out for “which,” it sounds ridiculous.
I want to know everything, which happened between you two.
There are few things, which I don’t enjoy doing.
If it reads or sounds odd, go back to what I said first under this subhead. When you’re unsure (or when it sounds weird), default to “that.” There are known pronouns that red flag this like “all” and “none,” and you can identify them as qualitative.
I’ll repeat this one more time only because I don’t want you to freak out and think your writing will crumble and be rejected because you use “that” a lot. It will, but that’s not the point.
I’m kidding. It won’t crumble. I promise. Using “that” is correct in almost any informal sentence, and it’s a safe default. But using the other two words allow you to properly define the significance of the description or even the subject of the sentence. These rules allow you to develop your stories and subtly bring out what you want to. There is so much more depth to these rules, but these are the basic and most important lessons about them.
Hopefully, the lessons helped. Keep them in mind in your writing, and see if you can properly use them. If you want, test yourself! Take the quiz below. I’m going to base the quiz off of formal usage of these terms, otherwise, “that” would always be right (kind of). So, give it a shot and comment your results! Or, comment with any questions you may have. Or corrections. You know, editors aren’t infallible. I’ve been wrong before. I won’t hunt you down. You can always comment with those things, too. I’ll only cry a little bit.
Remember, if you can remove “that” without changing the sentence’s meaning or destroying it completely, it won’t hurt to do so.