Who vs. that vs. which
Written by
Maria Murnane
November 2012
Written by
Maria Murnane
November 2012

I see "who," "that," and "which" used incorrectly pretty much every day, so I thought it was worth a blog post to clear up the confusion. Here we go:

Who refers to people:

  • She is a person who cares about others.
  • You are an author who needs to understand the importance of good grammar.
  • We need to hire someone who can get the job done quickly.

That is used for animals and inanimate objects:

  • They have one of those little dogs that can jump high and catch Frisbees.
  • She works for a fun company that provides free lunch every day.
  • Math is a subject that always gave me a lot of trouble in high school.

Which is used for animals and inanimate objects only when it appears at the beginning of a dependent clause (set off by commas), OR when you've already used that in the same sentence, OR if it's preceded by a preposition.

  • I saw a documentary that featured a company which was about to go bankrupt.
  • His position, which I don't think is valid, is that he was acting ethically when he fired her.
  • I'm sorry to be so blunt, but this job is one for which you're simply not qualified.

I know it looks like a lot to swallow, but the rules are pretty straightforward if you stick to them. In a future post, I'll address who vs. whom and whoever vs. whomever. I know those are also a mystery to many people.


Maria Murnane is the best-selling author of the romantic comedies Perfect on Paper, It's a Waverly Life, and Honey on Your Mind. She also provides consulting services on book publishing and marketing. Learn more at www.mariamurnane.com.

This blog post originally appeared on CreateSpace.com. Reprinted with permission. © 2012 CreateSpace, a DBA of On-Demand Publishing, LLC. All rights reserved.

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  • barbara johnson

    Thanks for the grammar lesson; I try to use these correctly in my own speech, but find myself not doing so because the folks around me don't always do so. In the stories on which I'm currently working, some of my characters are better educated than others; therefore, have better speech patterns. I find myself going back to change the dialogue speech patterns to reflect their particular personalities, etc. Interesting that I should find this today.

  • Ginny NiCarthy

    Thanks for this grammar lesson. It's important to know what usages are correct. Once we've absorbed those rules, we face some other intriguing, and arguably dicier challenges. What do we do when we want be correct in our use of words such as "whom" or the verb to- be. "She gave it to whom?" or "It's I" In this period of changing grammar norms, the correct and incorrect usage may make us cringe. It can seem as if we have only two choices: use language that sounds stilted or language that is incorrect. But a change in the structure will usually get us out of that type of dilemma. Then we just have to wait for the formerly incorrect usage, such as, "Everyone went their own way" and the like to become so common that they are pronounced correct.

  • Danyelle C. Overbo

    Oh, thank you!  I am looking forward to the who vs whom posting.  Since I've never used whom, I'm quite certain that I am using them incorrectly. 

  • Diane Lockward

    Can you tell us the correct use of into vs in to and onto vs on to?

  • I always enjoy your posts. Thanks for the refresher.

  • Kamy Wicoff Brainstorming

    Oh jeez I am really bad about when to use "which" versus "that."  I will save this one, Maria!