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Grammaerobics™: That, Which, And Who

July 10, 2014

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Simply put, use who to refer to people; which to refer to things; and that to refer to either people or things. This is what it looks like:

  • The man who is running to catch the bus is frantic.
  • The bus which the man is running after is going fast.
  • The man that is running to catch the bus is frantic.
  • The bus that the man is running after is going fast.

Pretty simple, huh? Well, it’s possible to make it even simpler—don’t use them at all if you don’t have to! Check it out:

  • The man running to catch the bus is frantic.
  • The bus the man is running after is going fast.

As it turns out, that, which, and who are frequently wasted words, although not always. The way to tell whether you need them is to watch for them when you proofread—you do proofread, don’t you? Good. If the sentence sounds OK without them, edit them out. One obvious red flag is when they’re used with a form of the verb “to be,” e.g., “who is,” “that are,”  “which were,” and so forth. For example:

  • The guy who is sitting at the bar is a pilot. / The guy sitting at the bar is a pilot.
  • The papers that are on my desk were forged. / The papers on my desk were forged.
  • The chairs which were in the hallway got swiped. / The chairs in the hallway got swiped.

(This editing strategy is referred to as “X-‘be’- deleted,” in case you need a conversation-starter at your next barbeque.)
Now—based on this new trove of information you’ve just been given, I’d like you to go back to the first sentence of this article and see if there’s anything you’d change.  If so, good! If not, um…

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