Thursday, April 9, 2009

Who? That which!

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.

For example:
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.

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  1. Very clear & quite funny, at the same time. I always go back through my writing and weed out the pesky "that."

  2. I agree unemployed thats must go. Also, I do get mixed up between which and that. I'll have to remember your advice.

    Morgan Mandel

  3. Great refresher. Thanks!

    I also find grammatical terms give me a rash.

  4. Glad the post was helpful, Folks.

    Writtenwyrdd- You must empathize with me- I'm currently writing an English textbook- imagine trying to avoid grammar terms while doing that... I'm perpetually scratching.

  5. I think I know these rules until I go back and read my work! Thanks for the refresher.

    Jane Kennedy Sutton

  6. Long ago I was taught "that" referred to the main subject of a sentence, "which" did not. Later I learned "that" is really the devil in disguise, and should be surgically extracted at every opportunity unless the sentence truly suffers without it. But I'd not heard of using "which" where the sentence worked without it...does this mean "which" is the new "that?" ;)

    Thanks for the good tips here!


  7. Very good post. Helps immensely in clearing up the usage of these words. Thanks.

  8. I suffer from the tendency to break out in that same pesky rash.

  9. Great post. I find that I need to do use that "FIND" button that is on the "EDIT" button to dump my extra thats. Whew, that's that!

  10. Thanks Lauri.

    In Britan,'Which' often appears where 'that' would more correct.

    In the USA,'that' often is used where 'which' might is more correct.

    In other words, while the grammar authorities agree that about the RULES governing the uses of 'that' and 'which' -they can differ on how
    strictly these rules should be observed.

    So, it's always wise to remember to study the 'house style' of the publisher you're submitting your work to.

    "Publishers' style guides establish house rules for language use, such as spelling, italics and punctuation; their major purpose is consistency. They are rulebooks for writers, ensuring consistent language. Authors are asked or required to use a style guide in preparing their work for publication; copy editors are charged with enforcing the publishing house's style".

  11. Man! I keep forgetting that one can't edit one's comments once they've been posted. My apologies for the unproofed read mess above. But hopefully, you can get the main gest of what I was trying to say.

  12. Yes David, the inability to correct these comments is very infuriating since I ALWAYS make mistakes- it's in my genetic make-up. Yes, house style is also an important thing to consider.

    Teresa- when I read something on an agent's blog about how too many thats were a huge turn-off for her, I went cold turkey that-less. That's also problematic I've found. One must find a nice happy medium with that.

  13. It's a great exercise to refrain from deleting a post due to errors... then re-posting in corrected version. I have been known to do that more than once. How does one write "anal-retentive"? With the hyphen? Or not?




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