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Write the Right Word: Who, That and Which

These three simple words - who, that, which - can cause writers a lot of headaches. Despite the way these words often are used, they’re not interchangeable.

“That” refers to inanimate objects and animals without a name. Use “who” when referring to people and animals with names. For example: “Bob Jones is the producer who raises cattle and sheep.” “Fluffy, who is my sister’s cat, just had kittens.” “This field is the one that flooded last year.” “The bull that injured one of the workers will be sold.”

“Which” also refers to inanimate objects and animals without a name. Whether you use “that” or “which” depends on the sentence.

Use “that” to start essential clauses, or those you can’t leave out of the sentence. “Which” introduces nonessential clauses, or those you can leave out and the sentence still makes sense. Here are some examples:

  • “The classrooms that were remodeled last summer are ready to be used this fall.” You can’t leave out “that were remodeled last summer” because it identifies which classrooms you are talking about.
  • “My house, which is gray with white trim, needs to be painted.” You can leave out “which is gray with white trim” because it’s extra information and not essential to your key message: the house needs painting.

, Information Specialist, 701-231-5391

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