Saturday, August 27, 2011

Who Dat Which?


Larry asked about rules for using who, that, and which. There are still grammarians who insist on brutally rigid distinctions, but the fact is that relative pronouns have waxed and waned in favor over the centuries and will continue to do so.

Currently, there is one point of general agreement. Most commentators say that who should be used when speaking of humans, and which should be saved for comments about nonhumans:

The person who did this damage is in deep trouble.

The motive which prompted him is irrelevant.


Many people would write that last sentence as, “The motive that prompted him is irrelevant.” That’s where much of the contention arises. That and which are practically interchangeable in many cases; personal preference and one’s sense of euphony come into play. Just take a look at this quote from the King James Version of the Bible: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” One sentence, two choices.

One other element comes into play, and that is the distinction between restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses. A restrictive clause contains necessary information: The dog that bit me is being held for tests. A nonrestrictive clause contains extra information: The dog, which is a gray Schnauzer, is being examined at Wilson Veterinary Care.

Contemporary usage seems to prefer the word that in a restrictive clause, and the word which in a nonrestrictive clause. Notice also that punctuation acts as a signal. A nonrestrictive clause is encased in commas, dashes, or parentheses. A restrictive clause does not use them.

Daily exercise that increases the heart rate is good for you.

Exercise, which should be part of your daily routine, is good for you.


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