Few aspects of the English language are as nuanced and impish as pronouns. If you’re confused about whether to say or THAT or WHICH, or WHO versus WHOM when referring to people, things, and places — this short-but-juicy episode of Grammar Guru is for you!
When to use WHO
Use who when you are referring to a person. Lots of style guides say that it’s not wrong to use that, but who is much preferred when it comes to individuals.
CORRECT: I don’t know one person who likes candy corn.
NOT PREFERRED: I don’t know one person that likes candy corn.
CORRECT: Cheers to the guy who always makes me laugh!
NOT PREFERRED: Cheers to the guy that always makes me laugh!
CORRECT: Sophie is the one who scored the winning goal.
NOT PREFERRED: Sophie is the one that scored the winning goal.
When to use THAT
Use that when you are referring to objects, ideas, and inanimate things in a defining way. It’s an essential part of the sentence and can’t be left out.
CORRECT: I don’t like meetings that last more than 30 minutes.
CORRECT: Rides that drop straight down scare me.
CORRECT: The song that had the drum solo was my favorite.
When to use WHICH
The above uses of that are correct because the “that clause” is essential to the meaning of the sentence. Use which when you are referring to objects, ideas, and inanimate things in a non-defining, non-essential, or generally descriptive way. This means you could take out the “which clause” (the word which and the descriptive phrasing immediately following) — and the sentence meaning would still stand. This is the trick to figuring out if you should use that or which.
CORRECT: My necklace, which has a broken clasp, is still in the shop.
CORRECT: My mom is making her famous brownies, which are my favorite.
CORRECT: Tim’s party, which was going to be tonight, was canceled.
You might notice that commas are a good indicator of a non-essential or descriptive clause. If the sentence can stand without the clause, use which.
What about GROUPS?
Use that when it’s a team or a singular group that is referred to as a whole.
CORRECT: Is that the team that lost in overtime?
CORRECT: The organization that hosted the event is amazing.
You can use who when you are referring to a group of people and it’s obvious that they are individual people.
CORRECT: Many of the hospital’s scientists who study cancer were interviewed.
CORRECT: That’s the group of girls who bullied me when I was little.
What about WHOM?
Who is the subject form. Use who wherever you would use the subjective pronouns she, he, they, we, or I.
Whom is the object form. Use whom wherever you would use her, him, them, us, or me.
CORRECT: Who wants to go eat?
NOTE: This is correct because who is the subject of the sentence. The reply would be: She wants to go eat.
CORRECT: Whom should I make the check out to?
NOTE: This is correct because whom is the object, not the subject. The reply would be: Make it out to her.
CORRECT: I wonder whom the song is written about.
NOTE: The reply would be: The song is written about her.
If the “she or her” test still does not make it clear, go with who. You’ll bother fewer people, sound a little less snooty, and have a good chance of being right.
Do you have a grammar rule or pet peeve you’d like me to cover? Email me at [email protected]!
Freshen up on Grammar Guru’s previous episodes!
Grammar Shape-Up Series: Apart vs. A Part
Grammar Shape-Up Series: Fewer vs. Less
Grammar Shape-Up Series: “Couldn’t Care Less”
Lay vs. Lie: Are You Using Them Correctly?
Apostrophes: Are You Over- Or Underusing Them?
IYKYK: The Acronyms You Need To Know
5 Words You’re Probably Using Incorrectly
3 Rules You’re Likely Breaking
Everyday vs. Every Day & Other Tricky Word Pairs
Grammar Guru: Prepositions CAN End a Sentence. Sometimes.
Grammar Guru: Are You Getting These 5 Phrases Wrong?
How the Oxford Comma Cost Someone $5M
Avoid This Common Mistake Made at Weddings and on Holiday Cards
The Trouble With Nordstroms, Krogers, Aldis & More
Give your inbox the Southern makeover it deserves! Subscribe to our daily emails!