I’m sure we’ve all had those moments where you just can’t decide…much like my pup and his toys. Which one, which one which one? (Really, he should just pick up both, but he refuses.) This leads me to this question: How do you decide between that and which? I’m getting better at choosing the right one (Yay me!), but what about that and who? The answer seems obvious. Is it really?
THAT or WHICH:
THAT: Use that in a restrictive clause (you can’t have the sentence without it because it is specific to something in the sentence to make it true).
• Cotton that grows in fields produces seeds.
If I’d written, ‘Cotton produces seeds,’ the meaning of the sentence changes. I’d be saying all cotton produces seeds when in fact, cotton balls used to remove makeup and nail polish do not. What a treat that would be if you reached in your bag of cotton balls and they’d reproduced. That grows in fields specifies the type of cotton.
TIP: Ask if your sentence ‘needs that’. If yes, then you’re good to go. Does cotton need to grow in fields to produce seeds? Why yes, it does. Pat yourself on the back, you wrote it right!
WHICH: Which is found in nonrestrictive clauses, meaning the sentence can ‘survive’ without it. You’ll see commas around nonrestrictive clauses in most cases.
• Cotton plants, which have thorns like razors, produce seeds.
I can write the sentence without which have thorns like razors and the sentence would still be true.
TIP: Can you ‘burn the witch’ (which)? Can cotton plants produce seeds? Yes, I can burn the ‘which have thorns like razors’ if I want to and the sentence still makes sense.
WRONG EX: Cotton which grows in fields produces seeds. Can I throw the ‘which grows in fields’ out? NO, the sentence won’t work without it, therefore I should change which to that. (This was very hard to type without commas, but for bad example’s sake, I left them out.)
WRONG EX: Cotton plants, that have thorns like razors, produce seeds. Does the plant need thorns to produce seeds? NO, so I know to change that to which.
WHO or THAT:
Knowing what to use is fairly self explanatory, or so I’m told.
Who for a person and that for things (including animals). But what about paranormal, fantasies and science fiction where items, animals and sometimes plants take on human qualities and can talk, dance, sing–you name it. There’s always more explanation needed if you’re me.
I’ve done some digging and it appears that animals with names (and I’m going to assume plants/items with human qualities and names) fall under the WHO category. But what about those that lack names?
• Think Alice in Wonderland and let’s pretend the character’s don’t have names. Is it: The flower who carried on a conversation with Alice; or The flower that carried on a conversation with Alice.
I’d have to go with who. The rose talks for Pete’s sake, and scolds and is down-right rude! Very much like some people, wouldn’t you say? As does the caterpillar and the hare and the cat! Don’t forget the cat who disappears mid-sentence.
• And who doesn’t know about the wolves that/who are humans and transform and all that. But if you weren’t sure the wolf had a name but knew he could also be human, would he still be a who? The wolf who perched on the rock; or The wolf that perched on the rock?
Personal preference leads me to say who since I know the wolf will transform into a human as soon as he calms the hell down. And on that note, I wouldn’t say, The boy that is a wolf, I’d say The boy who is a wolf so why wouldn’t it be, The wolf who is a boy?
—- There’s probably a good answer/explanation/reason for all of the above questions, as well as examples and exceptions, but I haven’t found them. (BTW I majored in Art, which means I stayed far, far away from the English Department, so take all of this with a grain of sand…because it’s plentiful where I live.) The best advice I can give is, don’t let it stop you from writing. Don’t fret until necessary. Someone will let you know where you’ve gone wrong, just make sure changes make your writing stronger! —-