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Introducing Grammar Hacks: Using Who, That, and Which

February 26, 2018


Don’t hate me, but I have to confess that I love two things most people hate: Mondays and grammar. Now, hear me out. As much as I love weekends because they give me lots of time to spend with my family, Mondays give me a chance to start fresh and focus on the projects ahead of me. And grammar—well, what can I say? I’ve always been a grammar nerd.


So I thought I’d smosh two of my favorite things together to give you something you can love—or at least find useful—on a Monday. Introducing Grammar Hacks. In this series, I’ll offer tips on overcoming common grammar problems I find in manuscripts. I’m not going to get all technical on you with rules and definitions. There are plenty of grammar books to help you learn those if you really want to. But knowing the rules on a theoretical level doesn’t necessarily help you apply them (and, let’s face it, can be rather dull).


Instead, I’ll give you some simple hacks for getting your grammar right. And just for fun, I’ll throw in examples of when and how you can get away with improper grammar, which is an essential part of everyday speech, after all.


To kick things off, I’m going to start with a simple way to decide how and when to use who, which, and that, which I often see misused in client work (see what I did there?).



Who is the easiest of the three to use, as it should be used of people and people only. (And it should always be used for people; never use that or which when talking about people). If you’re talking about an animal, business, or object, leave who out of it.


For example:

The man who wears a red hat ate all my food.

I sold my house to the woman who made me chocolate chip cookies.


But not:

The dog who wears a red hat ate all my food.

The man that wears a red hat ate all my food.

The man which wears a red hat ate all my food.


What about commas? Do you need them with who? The answer is, it depends. If the information after who is essential to the sentence (in other words, the sentence wouldn’t make sense without it), skip the commas. But if the information after who is simply extra information that renames the noun already mentioned, enclose it commas. Don’t worry, it sounds more confusing than it is.


Let’s take another look at the sentences above to make it clearer.


The man who wears a red hat ate all my food. This makes it clear exactly which man ate all my food—it was the one who wears a red hat.


What if I wrote instead, The man, who wears a red hat, ate all my food? That works, too, but in this case, the information who wears a red hat is simply additional information. It doesn’t tell us specifically which man ate all my food but only that the man who ate all my food happens to wear a red hat. Make sense?


Let’s look at the other sentence to make it even clearer.


I sold my house to the woman who made me chocolate chip cookies. In this case, without the commas, we know that the woman to whom (don’t get hung up on who/whom here—we’ll talk about that another time) I sold my house was the one who made me cookies. I didn’t sell it to any of the other people who didn’t make me cookies (and why would I?).


Now, what if I added commas: I sold my house to the woman, who made me chocolate chip cookies. See the slightly different meaning here? Now it doesn’t seem as if my decision to sell the house to the woman had anything to do with the cookies. In fact, it sounds more like she made the cookies after I sold her the house.


I know not having a hard and fast rule for when you need commas with who can make things trickier, but play around with it a bit, and you’ll get the hang of it.


You Try It: Who

Use these who phrases in a sentence with and without commas to see how it changes the meaning. (Scroll to the end of the post to see some sample answers.)


The woman who was crying

The little girl who missed her mother

John who hated roller coasters


Quick Caveat

Although who is sometimes needed, in many cases it can be cut to make a sentence tighter. For example, the girl who had a red balloon becomes the girl with the red balloon. See how that second phrase is tighter and more direct?


That or Which

Okay, enough of that—I mean who. Let’s get on to that and which. I’m going to talk about these two together because I find people often confuse them. Here’s a simple trick: if you need a comma, use which. If you don’t need a comma, use that.


I know what you’re thinking: That’s great, but how do I know when I need a comma? Good question. The answer is the same as we talked about above: If the information is essential to understanding the sentence, do not use a comma (and use that). If the information is nonessential (it is simply additional information), enclose it in commas (and use which).


Let’s try some examples:


The car, which was parked out front, got a parking ticket.

The car that was parked out front got a parking ticket.


See the subtle difference between these sentences? In the first, the information that the car was parked out front is extra. Now we know where the car was parked when it got a ticket. But the second sentence tells us that it was specifically the car parked out front (not the one in back or in the parking lot) that got the ticket.


One more example, just to make sure we have it:


The bear, which had brown fur, came toward me.

The bear that had brown fur came toward me.


What’s the difference? In the first, the fact that the bear has brown fur is incidental—the point is, there’s a bear coming at me! In the second, I’m saying that the bear with brown fur is the one that came toward me. (Wait, don’t grizzlies have brown fur? Excuse me, I have to run!)


A Few Caveats

Of course, use which when you’re talking about “which one is it?” (in which case that wouldn’t make sense—see what I did again? I love words!). Also, if you’re defining a word, you’ll need to use which. For example, She said adios, which means goodbye in Spanish.


And keep in mind that that can often be cut without changing the meaning of the sentence—making your writing tighter in the process. For example: I don’t think [that] we should go. Or The elephant learned [that] it couldn’t balance on a ball.


You Try It: That or Which

Fill in the right word (that or which) in these sentences. (See answers at the end of the post.)


The bird, _____ had come to rest on the windowsill, pointed with an accusing beak toward the empty bird feeder.


She had gone so long without food that she ate the bread _____ was moldy. (Bonus points: Can you come up with a better way to reword this sentence without using which or that?)


Answers for You Try It: Who

Of course, the answers are as endless as the creativity of all who ventured this far into the post, but here are a few examples:

The woman who was crying ran a red light.

The woman, who was crying, grabbed a pen to sign the papers.

The woman who was crying hurtled into me on the subway.


The little girl who missed her mother threw herself to the floor and screamed.

The little girl, who missed her mother, offered a brave smile around her tears.

The little girl, who missed her mother, refused to eat even the chocolate cake the doctor offered.


John, who hated roller coasters, screamed as the car plunged toward the ground. Note: Because we used a proper name, this one needs commas. It doesn’t make sense to say John who hated roller coasters screamed because we already know who John is, and the information that he hates roller coasters is not essential to understanding the sentence (even if it’s essential to understanding John).


Let’s try another example: Melissa, who always wore red, had put on a black dress for the occasion. Although we may need to know that Melissa always wore red to understand the significance of her wearing black, the information isn’t essential to understand the sentence itself. Melissa had put on black for the occasion still makes sense, even if we miss the nuance the statement about red adds.


Answers for You Try It: That or Which

The bird, which had come to rest on the windowsill, pointed with an accusing beak toward the empty bird feeder. The fact that the bird had come to rest on the windowsill is extra information, set off by commas, so we use which.


She had gone so long without food that she ate the bread that was moldy. The whole point is that she was so hungry she was willing to eat moldy bread, making that was moldy essential. She didn’t eat just any bread; she ate the bread that was moldy.


Bonus points: Change that was moldy to moldy bread. She had gone so long without food that she ate the moldy bread.

Or we could get rid of both thats: After going so long without food, she ate the moldy bread.


Need Help?

What trips you up about using who, that, and which? Let me know in the comments. And if you’d like help going through your manuscript to find grammar errors or other issues, check out my proofreading and editorial services or contact me for more information.

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