Wednesday, June 27, 2012


Betty from Williamsburg called to decry the blurring between who and that when used as relative pronouns.

The traditional rule says that who should be reserved for humans and that for objects. So we’d write, “The man who did this ran away after the murder,” but “The weapon that killed his victim was a Glock.”  This distinction is still useful and should be maintained.

Two other paired relative pronouns – that and which – also cause some confusion. The preferred usage is to write that when it starts a restrictive clause – a group of words containing necessary information: The dog that bit me was a Bouvier. The clause “that bit me” cannot be left out and still convey the full meaning. I’m not speaking of just any Bouvier; I’m pinpointing the one that bit me.

If the clause is nonrestrictive – a group of words containing extra information – use the word which: The Bouvier, which was brindle in color, bit me. Note also that the nonrestrictive clause is encased in commas, while the restrictive clause is not.

  • She carefully studied the chapter that explains osmosis.
  • She carefully studied Chapter 5, which explains osmosis.
  • The history play that Shakespeare wrote in 1599 was Julius Caesar.
  • Julius Caesar, which Shakespeare wrote in 1599, was a history play.

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