“Every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind, is written large in his works.”
—Virginia Woolf

Relative Pronouns: How Not to Ruin a Sentence

Oh, relative pronouns. You crazy, crazy kids. You can cause so much frustration with your misplaced thats, whos, and whichs. Let’s have a chat and sort you all out, shall we?

relative pronouns

Let’s say you’re telling a story about Weston, a neurologist with a bionic elbow. When do you use which relative pronoun?

When to use who

Weston has a lady friend. Her name is Eugenie. Eugenie is the woman who saved Weston’s left arm by performing surgery and attaching the bionic elbow.

Who is used when you’re talking about people, and those people are the subjects of your sentence. Eugenie is the subject of the above sentence, and so we use who.

When to use that

Weston also has a pet iguana. Its name is Reptar. Reptar is the reason that Weston is so popular with zookeepers. Reptar’s tongue is the thing that freaks out skittish women at his office.

Generally, that is used when you’re describing a thing by using a restrictive clause.

If you remove the clause after the “that” above, the sentence doesn’t make a ton of sense.

When to use which

Eugenie, Weston’s lady friend, has an antique microwave collection. Her favorite microwave, which is also her oldest microwave, is one from the early 1970s.

Which is used to describe a thing with a nonrestrictive clause. A nonrestrictive clause, as you may have guessed, is a clause that, if removed from the sentence, still leaves the sentence with a functional structure. In the example above, if we take out the “which is also her oldest microwave,” we still have a logical sentence.

Do you have any tricks that help you remember which relative pronoun to use? Let us know in the comments.

PRACTICE

Tell the rest of Weston the neurologist’s story (or at least fifteen minutes’ worth of it). Use who, which, and that properly to describe Weston’s typical Tuesday.

Write for fifteen minutes. Post your practice in the comments.

About Liz Bureman

Liz Bureman has a more-than-healthy interest in proper grammatical structure, accurate spelling, and the underappreciated semicolon. When she's not diagramming sentences and reading blogs about how terribly written the Twilight series is, she edits for the Write Practice, causes trouble in Denver, and plays guitar very slowly and poorly. You can follow her on Twitter (@epbure), where she tweets more about music of the mid-90s than writing.

  • Victorianoe

    The use of “that” instead of “who” (when referring to people) drives me crazy! Thanks for this!

  • Victorianoe

    The use of “that” instead of “who” (when referring to people) drives me crazy! Thanks for this!

  • manilamac

    “Let’s say you’re telling a story about a neurologist with a bionic elbow named Weston.”

    Hi Liz, it’s me again. What confuses me about this exercise is that we so seldom encounter people who give their bionic body parts name. It makes me wonder why anyone, even a neurologist, would give his elbow a name (or was it Eugenie who christened the device Weston, and only later introduced the neurologist to it once he recovered from the anesthetic, by which time it was already too late…). – M

    • epbure

      Dang it, Mac, nothing gets past you! I’ve made the changes (although it is kind of amusing to think of the adventures of Weston, the bionic elbow).

      • manilamac

        You’re absolutely right, Liz, it’s a very amusing story idea. I came *this* close to writing 500 words or so about just that! But I had to get back to my editing and thus had to let it slide. Thank you for not seeking vengeance by pointing out the missing article in my second sentence. You’re a nice person! – M

  • manilamac

    “Let’s say you’re telling a story about a neurologist with a bionic elbow named Weston.”

    Hi Liz, it’s me again. What confuses me about this exercise is that we so seldom encounter people who give their bionic body parts name. It makes me wonder why anyone, even a neurologist, would give his elbow a name (or was it Eugenie who christened the device Weston, and only later introduced the neurologist to it once he recovered from the anesthetic, by which time it was already too late…). – M

    • Dang it, Mac, nothing gets past you! I’ve made the changes (although it is kind of amusing to think of the adventures of Weston, the bionic elbow).

      • manilamac

        You’re absolutely right, Liz, it’s a very amusing story idea. I came *this* close to writing 500 words or so about just that! But I had to get back to my editing and thus had to let it slide. Thank you for not seeking vengeance by pointing out the missing article in my second sentence. You’re a nice person! – M

  • joco

    “Reptar is the reason that Weston is so popular with zookeepers. ”

    Wouldn’t this sentence still make sense without “that”? If so, then is it really a restrictive clause?

    • epbure

      Hey Tom, a restrictive clause includes everything after the that. So if you took out the restrictive clause, you would be removing “that” and everything after is, so you’d end up with “Reptar is the reason.” It’s technically still a sentence, but it doesn’t make any sense.

      • Julie Mayerson Brown

        I do believe we can eliminate the word “that” in many sentences. I’m cutting about 8000 words from my manuscript. Searched and destroyed a few dozen “thats.” So there. 🙂

  • Anonymous

    “Reptar is the reason that Weston is so popular with zookeepers. ”

    Wouldn’t this sentence still make sense without “that”? If so, then is it really a restrictive clause?

    • Hey Tom, a restrictive clause includes everything after the that. So if you took out the restrictive clause, you would be removing “that” and everything after is, so you’d end up with “Reptar is the reason.” It’s technically still a sentence, but it doesn’t make any sense.

  • Guest

    Every Tuesday, which happened to be Weston’s day off, Eugenia took a two hour lunch break and got her hair done at the “Curl Up and Dye” beauty parlor. Her twin brother, Eugene, who just happened to be gay, ran the place.

    Weston enjoyed cooking now that he had his bionic elbow that Eugenia designed. She had programmed it so Weston could download various apps that allowed him to perform new tasks that he’d never been able to do prior to the surgery, such as cooking. As a way of saying thanks to Eugenia, Weston fixed lunch with his new elbow and took it to the beauty parlor so they could have lunch together while Eugene did her hair.

    Eugene allowed his sister to display some of her microwave collection in the lobby of the “Curl Up and Dye.” He also set up a café table and two chairs for customers to use during their lunch breaks. He knew that every Tuesday at noon Eugenia and Weston would show up for their weekly lunch and hairdo rendezvous.

    On this particular Tuesday, Weston not only brought lunch, but he also brought his pet iguana, Reptar. Eugene, who happened to be deathly afraid of small prehistoric dinosaurs, jumped up on the barber chair when he saw Reptar pop his spiny head out of Weston’s picnic basket. When he did, the chair began to spin around and around, making Eugene dizzy and nauseous. As he continued to scream and spin uncontrollably, he choked on his Juicy Fruit and began to vomit, reminding Weston of one of the fairies spouting water from their mouths in the city fountain.

    All the other customers began screaming and running out into the street with their hair in mid-coif. Weston, who was trying desperately to keep vomit from getting into his lunch basket, threw the basket across the room away from the hysterical fairy fountain. When he did, Reptar flew out and landed in the open microwave that Eugenia was getting ready to use to warm up her tea. As she turned around, she accidently slammed the door shut and fell against the display panel, turning on the microwave.

    The last thing Weston remembered before passing out, was the horror on both Eugene’s and Reptar’s faces just as the microwave dinged.

    • Oh God, this is craziness. Poor Reptar.

      Well, Tom. You’ve managed to achieve new heights of both ridiculousness and hilarity. Eugene, Eugenia’s twin? Curl up and Dye? The “there’s an app for that” bionic arm? The fairy fountain (both literal and figurative)? Unbelievable.

      I can’t believe this took you fifteen minutes. I would guess closer to 30.

      Anyway, well done sir. It’s like the scene in Bridesmaids at the wedding dress fitting. You can’t watch but you can’t look away. Painfully funny.

    • Oddznns

      Dang it! Came back from my advent retreat all ready to roast Repton in Eugenie’s microwave and you’ve already done it…. to hilarious perfection!
      Tomdub, do you think you should syndicate a column based on the 15 minutes you keep putting into this blog! I can see it going viral….

      • Great idea, Audrey. Do it, Tom!

        • Also, what’s up you people and roasting reptiles name repton?

    • Lois Guarino Hazel

      Loved it!

      • Elizabeth

        thanks

    • WritingBoy

      I’d also probably pass out, if someone fixed me lunch with an elbow in it!

    • WritingBoy

      Yep, he just ‘had’ to be gay.

    • Gee now where have I heard the name of that beauty shop… hehe such a good movie.

  • Anonymous

    Every Tuesday, which happened to be Weston’s day off, Eugenia took a two lunch break and got her hair done at the “Curl Up and Dye” beauty parlor. Her twin brother, Eugene, who just happened to be gay, ran the place.

    Weston enjoyed cooking now that he had his bionic elbow that Eugenia designed. She had programmed it so Weston could download various apps that allowed him to perform new tasks that he’d never been able to do prior to the surgery, such as cooking. As a way of saying thanks to Eugenia, Weston fixed lunch with his new elbow and took it to the beauty parlor so they could have lunch together while Eugene did her hair.

    Eugene allowed his sister to display some of her microwave collection in the lobby of the “Curl Up and Dye.” He also set up a café table and two chairs for customers to use during their lunch breaks. He knew that every Tuesday at noon Eugenia and Weston would show up for their weekly lunch and hairdo rendezvous.

    On this particular Tuesday, Weston not only brought lunch, but he also brought his pet iguana, Reptar. Eugene, who happened to be deathly afraid of small prehistoric dinosaurs, jumped up on the barber chair when he saw Reptar pop his spiny head out of Weston’s picnic basket. When he did, the chair began to spin around and around, making Eugene dizzy and nauseous. As he continued to scream and spin uncontrollably, he choked on his Juicy Fruit and began to vomit, causing him to look like one of the fairies spouting water from their mouths in the city fountain.

    All the other customers began screaming and running out into the street with their hair in mid-coif. Weston, who was trying desperately to keep vomit from getting into his lunch basket, threw the basket across the room away from the hysterical fairy fountain. When he did, Reptar flew out and landed in the open microwave that Eugenia was getting ready to use to warm up her tea. As she turned around, she accidently slammed the door shut and fell against the display panel, turning on the microwave.

    The last thing Weston remembered before passing out, was the horror on both Eugene’s and Reptar’s faces just as the microwave dinged.

    • Oh God, this is craziness. Poor Reptar.

      Well, Tom. You’ve managed to achieve new heights of both ridiculousness and hilarity. Eugene, Eugenia’s twin? Curl up and Dye? The “there’s an app for that” bionic arm? The fairy fountain (both literal and figurative)? Unbelievable.

      I can’t believe this took you fifteen minutes. I would guess closer to 30.

      Anyway, well done sir. It’s like the scene in Bridesmaids at the wedding dress fitting. You can’t watch but you can’t look away. Painfully funny.

    • Oddznns

      Dang it! Came back from my advent retreat all ready to roast Repton in Eugenie’s microwave and you’ve already done it…. to hilarious perfection!
      Tomdub, do you think you should syndicate a column based on the 15 minutes you keep putting into this blog! I can see it going viral….

      • Great idea, Audrey. Do it, Tom!

        • Also, what’s up you people and roasting reptiles name repton?

  • Man. The “Write Practice.” Blows my mind every time.

    • Ha! You mean the title or this post?

      • Haha, both. But mostly the posts themselves. (did i use the quotations wrong there? I haven’t read that post yet.)

        • Gotcha. Well thanks Kirsten. And no, you didn’t use them right 😉

          • Well, there you go. Just more of a reason to keep reading, writing, and practicing, I suppose. 🙂

  • Man. The “Write Practice.” Blows my mind every time.

    • Ha! You mean the title or this post?

      • Haha, both. But mostly the posts themselves. (did i use the quotations wrong there? I haven’t read that post yet.)

        • Gotcha. Well thanks Kirsten. And no, you didn’t use them right 😉

          • Well, there you go. Just more of a reason to keep reading, writing, and practicing, I suppose. 🙂

  • Carla Cruz

    A couple of days ago I had a discussion with a friend about the use of who and which on interrogations. This post helped to clear things in my mind. Thank you!

  • Carla Cruz

    A couple of days ago I had a discussion with a friend about the use of who and which on interrogations. This post helped to clear things in my mind. Thank you!

  • M. Poppins

    “I knew a man with a wooden leg named Smith,” said Bert. “What was the name of his other leg?” asked Uncle Albert. This is, admittedly, an old joke that I never tire of, even though Uncle Albert is a man who should be more attentive to punch lines which are ambiguous.

  • M. Poppins

    “I knew a man with a wooden leg named Smith,” said Bert. “What was the name of his other leg?” asked Uncle Albert. This is, admittedly, an old joke that I never tire of, even though Uncle Albert is a man who should be more attentive to punch lines which are ambiguous.

  • Elena Brabant

    Love this! Simple nice trick!

  • Sarkis Antikajian

    Weston survived the surgery that saved her life. If she refused to be operated on, which may have been a mistake, she would now be without the use of her arm. Eugenia, Weston’s surgeon who became a close friend, was esteemed for her superior knowledge in neurology, an achievement, that made her the president’s chosen surgeon.

  • Elizabeth

    Dr.
    Weston, chief Neurosurgeon at St. Agnes Hospital, begins his day reading up on
    new procedures and looks to see that he can utilize this innovative
    information. He peruses new material to keep current in his field. Dr. Weston
    recognizes the importance of up-to-date information from his own medical
    procedure. Dr. Gatsby at St Agnes, who performed surgery on his elbow, claimed
    he was able to successfully implant Dr. Weston’s bionic elbow relative to new
    information he had scrutinized while preparing for this particular surgery. Organizing
    for the Siamese twins’ separation, an article which Weston recently read, was
    in a reputable medical journal. He was able to incorporate 2 segments of the
    article into the procedure, which was successful, resulting in Hope and Faith’s
    individual existence

  • God bless you for this post. This concept is one of the most difficult to get. Even though I’m an editor and have been working for years, sometimes relative pronouns still trip me up. The next time anyone comes to me with a question about them, I’ll send them straight to this article. Keep up the good work!

  • LC

    Juicy Fruit and Microwave tea! Two thumbs up! I think this vivid and enlightening passage about Reptar would indeed be written in more than a 15 minute time frame.

  • WritingBoy

    I just do love a cup of tea with the Grammar Nazis! It’s always so very refreshing.

  • WritingBoy

    It just occurred to me that Liz could edit and re-write that Harry Potter crapola also.

  • Zerelda

    But what about “whom”?

    • WritingBoy

      You just this minute stole my thunder, Zerelda. Yes, what about who and whom. They are two that stump me often.

  • I have tried to understand the difference between ‘that’ and ‘which’ several times. I’ve always found that it confused me. This post, which is four years old, helps me in this matter. Cheers!

  • DiyaSaini

    Weston’s typical Tuesday was no less than any other working day. Graying & Brewing with time he had become perfect inspite of being disabled. Juggling is an art, which he seemed to master it all. Balancing life personally & professionally was a spin that he could do all along. Morning alarm made Reptor & Weston on the go. Which would break the day with non stop chattering between the two. Yeah the difference being one was vocal, the other was receptive. Reptor was a medal of pride, who seeped in lot of envy from others along. Zookeepers tagged him as a rare species, which is getting extinct. One thing which demarcated Tuesday was that weekly checkup with Ms.Eugenie. Which rounded of always with a smile & a steaming cup of coffee to go along.

    • WritingBoy

      I’m always impressed with ‘writers’ who can lovingly mangle the English language and have a smile on their face while do so. Outstanding.

  • Trudi McKinney

    Tuesday used to be women’s clinic at Weston’s office, which was the busiest day of the week. Reptor, Weston’s pet iguana, was usually put away in the back room on these days because the waiting room was full of women who were especially squeamish. One particular Tuesday Reptor escaped and decided to visit the waiting room. A woman who wore flip-flops felt a cold and scaly sensation on her feet which gave her a start. She looked down to see the reptile slithering along her bare toes. She rared back so forcefully that the window pane shattered. The flying shards of glass were the reason that she got twenty-five stitches in her head instead of a mammogram. Reptor is the reason that Tuesdays are now Weston’s deadest day of the week.

  • Lauren

    The snowboard landed a few feet from Weston in a mound of thick powdery snow. For a matter of minutes he lay unconscious sinking ever so slightly under the weight of his own body. He had allowed his inner-daredevil to take charge when he made the decision to scale his way up to the expert course despite the warning of his insurance agent, Miguel.

    When Weston awoke face-down in the snow he used his neck to pry himself from his present circumstance. Glancing at the imprint of his facial structure he smiled at its resemblance to the shape of his notorious iguana, Reptar. Weston keeps Reptar in a cage in his waiting room which he uses as a mechanism to lighten the mood in the waiting room in his practice. Reptar is known throughout the town for his unusually long tongue and his ability to freak out all of the skittish women who work in the office like Eugenie, the surgeon.

    “Doctor Eastmoor!” Weston heard his name reverberating off the mounds of surrounding snow. Eugenie and a couple of nurses came running urgently to his aid. It had been Weston’s idea to take the employees of his practice on the grand snowboarding adventure as their annual trip even though Eugenie had seriously questioned his motive.

    “Doctor Eastmoor, it’s only been a few months since your bionic elbow was attached. You need it to heal properly before returning to the snow.” Eugenie had cautioned. She had been the one to perform the surgery which allowed Weston to keep his entire arm. Frostbite had nearly stolen his arm, hobby, and professional abilities last winter. At the time Eugenie had told him he would likely never snowboard again let alone perform another neurosurgery. But one month after attaching his bionic elbow he was cleared to return to his practice.When he had suggested the annual trip to the Snow Club he was met by critique from Eugenie, who seemed to be constantly reminding him of his new limitations.

    “Can’t you find a safer hobby, Doctor Eastmoor?” Eugenie began. “Can’t you start a collection? I quite enjoy my antique microwave collection. It’s a lot of fun to invest in something you love. No danger there.”

    So even though it was ill-advised, Weston book a cabin for the weekend and brought along his staff more for his own insurance than for a need for companionship. He was bound to not allow himself to give up his passion because of the new bionic addition.

    As Eugenie approached Weston laying in the snow he saw, “I told you we shouldn’t have come here…” written all over her face. Before she could utter a word, however, he stood to his feet, checked that all extremities were intact, and then spoke irritably, “Don’t say a word, Eugenie. I’m fine.”

  • Jonathan O’Donnell

    This reminded me of the amazing (and true) story of Corporal Cole and his whale bone hand, designed by Robert Hasting Norman. Originally built in the 1840s, it has now been used as a model for a downloadable prosthetic called the Raptor Hand.
    http://www.nla.gov.au/blogs/trove/2016/01/08/ideas-cross-centuries-and-change-lives

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