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5. Relative Pronouns

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That or Which? Who or Whom?

Smart people get confused over relative pronouns. They use which when it feels good and that when it sounds right, and totally come apart when trying to sort out who-whom-whose.

That, Which, Who, Whom, and Whose

Amber, Igor, and Miss Hamrick must have had a bad night when they concocted relative pronouns. Or perhaps they intentionally devised a system that would stump even the smartest writers.

Actually, truth be known, the system is quite ingenious. You just need to understand it. When you do, you’ll never make a mistake again.

Let’s see if we can set things straight on the proper use of that, which, who, whom, and whose. Two other relative pronouns are whoever (subjective case) and whomever (objective case).

Three Characteristics

These seven words share three characteristics:

1. They introduce a dependent adjective clause. 2. They serve a grammatical function in that clause. 3. They refer to a particular noun in the main sentence.

Consider these examples:

The fund that you identified soared in value.

The relative pronoun that (1) introduces the dependent clause that you identified, (2) serves as the object of identified, and (3) refers to the noun fund in the main sentence. The entire clause that you identified is an adjective clause modifying fund.

Let’s look at another:

The fund that soared in value won the award.

Check out the three functions: The word that (1) introduces the dependent clause that soared in value, (2) acts as the subject of the clause, and (3) refers to the noun fund in the main sentence.

Note the differences in these two that clauses. The first (that you identified) has its own independent subject you. But the second (that soared in value) has no independent subject; instead the word that acts as the subject.

We’ll see the relevance of this distinction in the eBook Developing a Powerful Writing Style.

Grammatical Function Served

The words that and which do not change their form depending on the function they serve in the sentence. The word that can act as an object or a subject, and its form stays the same. The same is true for which.

Grammatical Function Example
subject of clause The book that arrived at the store sold out in one day. *
subject of clause This report, which details the problems, explains our options. *
object of clause The book that I described sold out in one day.
object of clause This report, which she wrote, explains our options.


* In these examples, we assume that the “report” is necessarily one already identified to the reader. Hence the use of the nonrestrictive “comma which” clause. The “book,” we assume, needs to be identified to the reader. Hence the use of the restrictive that clause. See the upcoming discussion on that vs. which.


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