No, this is not going to be a post about dialogue in soap operas, so if that’s what you were looking for you better move along. This is a post about when to use who, that, and which.
According to The Macmillan Good English Handbook, we use who with people.
An example: Creek, who married Fern’s ex-husband and then poisoned him, cried into her third glass of Merlot and wondered if she was becoming an alcoholic.
We use which, on the other hand, for things.
An example: The poison, which Creek used to kill Cliff, was not found during the autopsy, but Detective Smith still had his suspicions.
Okay that’s the easy part. So what about which and that? Those are the tricky ones right? Grammar Girl makes it very simple. If the phrase must remain in the sentence or the sentence will no longer mean the same thing, you must use that. (This is a restrictive clause, if you must. I try to avoid grammatical terms. They give me a rash)
If the phrase can be taken out of the sentence and the sentence still keeps its meaning then you should use which. (A non-restrictive clause for all you grammar devotees who insist on having your way)
Examples: Cliff’s death, which caused havoc in the fashion industry, made Fern a wealthy woman thanks to a legal technicality he had included in his will
Cliff’s will that he wrote only days before his death was the one with the critical change that left Creek destitute.
In the first example, if you remove –which caused havoc in the fashion industry- the sentence will not lose its meaning because the sentence is really about Fern getting rich thanks to Creek’s handiwork.
Whereas in the second example, removing- that he wrote only days before his death - would change the meaning of the sentence completely and wouldn’t let us in on the fact that Cliff had a feeling his days might be numbered and that his darling Creek might be the one numbering them.
Another small thing about that- watch it! Thats are very tricky and, frankly, pushy. They have a tendency to push their way into sentences when there is no job for them there at all.
That poison on the shelf was the poison that Creek used to kill Cliff.
The second that is just sitting there serving no purpose except to needlessly increase the word count. Get rid of it. Remove all thats with no job. Unemployed thats must go. I’m sorry; that’s the way it is.
Lauri Kubuitsile is an award-winning writer living in Botswana. She blogs about the writing life as well as many other things at Thoughts from Botswana.