Who, Which, That, and What

In the space of about 600 words here, I would like to try to explain the basics of the four relative pronouns who, which, that, and what. We use these words constantly in conversation, changing the intonation of our voice easily and naturally to express quite subtle distinctions of meaning. These same distinctions have to be expressed when we write, and since we write when we can’t be there, we have to be able to employ skillfully other devices that the principles and rules of grammar and composition provide to express our exact meaning. Here we go.

A relative pronoun stands in place of a noun and joins it to a new clause. The relative who in the sentence the nurse who helped me was so caring is representing the noun nurse in the subordinate clause who helped me. The independent clause of this sentence is the nurse was so caring, and the subordinate clause has been inserted right into the middle of it to keep the relative pronoun close to its antecedent (the word to which a pronoun refers). English interrupts clauses like this all the time, and so it is all the more important to understand sentences clause by clause. Using a pronoun allows us to avoid the monotony of writing the nurse the nurse who helped me was so caring, an arrangement of words that would violate the principle of variety.

The relative pronoun who (or whom if it is working as an object of a verb or preposition) can only refer to a person. Which, on the other hand, works just like who but refers only to things: I followed the instructions which my doctor had given me. Which refers here to instructions in the independent clause, and is standing as the object of had given in its own subordinate clause. Next, the relative pronoun that functions just like who and which, but can refer to either a person or a thing: the nurse that helped me and the instructions that my doctor gave me. One peculiarity the relative that displays (and there are, of course, others) is that that cannot follow a preposition: the nurse to whom I am so grateful, never the nurse to that I am so grateful.

And finally, what. This relative pronoun is often called a double or compound relative because it really means that which. In the sentence what she did for me few would do, the antecedent for what actually follows in the next clause—an irregular arrangement because an antecedent (the term means goes before in Latin) usually precedes its pronoun. If we rewrite the sentence for purposes of analysis, substituting that which for the double relative what, we can see more clearly how it is really working: few would do that which she did for me. What, like which, can only refer to things.

It can be enormously helpful to remember that English (and other languages as well) will use the same word in different ways. The relative pronoun who can also be used as an interrogative pronoun (who called?), and the relative that can be used as a demonstrative (that is the one I want). Because language can be so complex (which means, interestingly, that we can be so complex when we think), the art of writing has developed a canon of principles and rules that can make it easier to express exactly what we are thinking and feeling. But these rules of use and arrangement take on life only in the real sentences and paragraphs we write, so our first question in analyzing language should always be: what is the word doing? From that answer flows all the grammatical terminology that is meant simply to help us organize our words more efficiently and express ourselves more precisely.


Understanding the Six Tenses
Tuesday, December 1
7:00 to 8:00 p.m. CT

A well-written sentence orders its ideas logically for the reader, and one way to do that is by using verbs in the correct tense. English grammar employs six tenses, and the next Writing Smartly seminar will show you how to form each of them, explain some of the differences between them, and present a number of the rules that govern where to place an adverb, the part of speech that modifies a verb. Participants will receive a handout that summarizes the one-hour presentation, along with exercises and answers for private study. You may enroll now through this registration link. Tuition is $25.


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  1. Have you noticed a current trend to use “who” for countries, companies, or organizations? I guess this works on the theory that countries–or companies or organizations–are composed of people, so “who” would be appropriate here?

    1. It’s been a trend for some time now, and as trends will do, it comes and goes and comes back again into vogue. Whatever its vagaries, employing the relative pronoun “who” this way strains its use when “that” is accustomed to lifting such weight. The relative pronoun “who” can have only a masculine or feminine gender antecedent, so when it is used to refer to a company or organization, the rhetorical effect (and perhaps this is exactly why it is so used) is to suggest that a company is actually many human beings acting with the same larger purpose in mind. That, however, is to forget that most companies perdure despite a change in personnel, and operate according to rules that assure first their own ability to survive. Companies will even sometimes refer to themselves as a family, inviting consumers to be a part of their community, a pose that is dropped when the bill is not paid. Instead, the relative pronoun “that” can refer to a neuter antecedent as well as masculine or feminine, and so by writing “a company that,” we can preserve the inanimate (and truer) character of the reference without precluding the animate overtones if a reader wants to find them. Questions like this are important because without watching closely how language works, we can be swept along by suggestions that are all the more powerful for being implicit, not explicit.

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