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?
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.
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.