The use of relative pronouns can often present something of a challenge for those learning English as a second language. In particular, use of “who,” “which,” or “that” can present some trouble, leading to grammatical inaccuracy that reduces essay and exam scores, not to mention having an impact on their oral clarity.
Use “which” for non-essential information, “that” for essential information, and “who” for people. E.g. “The book, which was on the table, is mine.” “The movie that we watched was great.” “The person who wrote the book is famous.”
The short answer is above, but to fully understand it we have to dig a little deeper to know how and when should we use these different terms? Are there any conventions or indications that can help us to choose the right one each time? We’ll explore these questions and more in the article below.
First of all, these three words all have at least one thing in common, namely that they are relative pronouns. When referring to people, we generally use “who,” but when referring to objects or other things, we would use “which” or “that.”
The obvious follow-up question, then, is how to distinguish between “which” and “that” for different objects. We’ll talk about that in more detail below.
Here are some examples of how we would use “who” to refer to people:
- The old gentleman who walks with a cane is called Reginald. He’s 96 years old!
- In this sentence, “who” refers to the old gentleman
- The girl who is singing outside has been out there for hours
- In this sentence, “who” refers to the girl
So from this it’s easy to know that whenever we are talking about a person, we can use “who” as the relative pronoun, and neither “which” nor “that.” The latter two are used for objects, like in these following example sentences:
- I think that my copy of the textbook, which I left on the table in the restaurant last night, was stolen
- Do you see the cow over there that is standing in the north field?
In the first sentence, “which” refers to the copy of the textbook, while in the second sentence “that” refers to the cow.
In both of these sentences, the use of “which” and “that” is done with care and consideration. They are not interchangeable. But how do we know which one to use? Read on for more information.
The difference between the two sentences lies in what kind of information they contain, be it essential or non-essential information.
Alternatively, we can consider whether or not the relative pronoun is referring to a specific object or not.
Finally, “which” is nearly always preceded by a comma, so that gives us a further clue. Let’s apply this knowledge to the examples that we gave above.
First, let’s look at the sentence:
“I think that my copy of the textbook, which I left on the table in the restaurant last night, was stolen”
The essential information in the sentence can be condensed down to “I think that my copy of the textbook was stolen.” The part with the relative pronoun is an additional description that helps us identify the textbook among others, perhaps, but it is not essential to the meaning of the sentence. We also sometimes call that information “non-restrictive” information.
Next, let’s look at the other examples sentence that uses “that” as the relative pronoun:
“Do you see the cow over there that is standing in the north field?”
In this sentence, we can see that the information about the cow standing in the north field is essential to the meaning of the sentence. We sometimes also call this kind of information “restrictive” information.
When we are pointing out the cow, we are talking specifically about the one standing in the north field. There may be other cows in other fields, but we want to refer to that one alone. In this instance, therefore, “that” is the appropriate choice.
This relative pronoun helps us when we want to be more precise about which object we are referring to.
Here are two more example sentences that use “which” or “that” relative pronouns:
- Do you see the car that Jerry’s company gave him as a gift? It’s incredible!
- The film “Titanic,” which I first saw back in 1997, is a true masterpiece of cinema.
In the first sentence, we have used restrictive information, and “that” refers not just to any old car, but specifically to the one that Jerry’s company has given to him as a gift. In the second sentence, the middle of the sentence contains nonessential or “non-restrictive” information, namely that the speaker/writer first saw the movie “Titanic” back in 1997. If we boil the second sentence down to its essential information only, then we would get:
“The film “Titanic” is a true masterpiece of cinema.”
Therefore, we can know that when adding nonessential (but perhaps interesting or useful) information to a sentence, we can add a comma and then use “which” as the relative pronoun. However, when the relative pronoun conveys information about a specific object, all of which we must know for the sentence to make sense, then we can use “that.”
We have some which and who worksheets for download that cover Which and who at least and can help younger learners grasp the concept.
We also have worksheets on relative Clauses on the site as well
and finally if you need there are also worksheets on reflexive pronouns as well. If you need anything else it will be just a search away 🙂
Who Vs. Which Vs. That in a Test
If you’re choosing between “who,” “which,” or “that” in the context of a gap-fill exercise or test, then remember the following things:
- If the relative pronoun is referring to a person, then it must be “who”
- If the relative pronoun is referring to an object, it could be “which” or “that”
- If the sentence contains restrictive information, it’s best to use “that”
- If the sentence contains non-restrictive information, it’s best to use “which”
- If the relative pronoun is separated by a comma, then it is also most likely “which”