Monday, March 22, 2010

Holding Up Your Pants with That, Which & Who

By Chris Roerden (copyright 2010)

Note: Chris Roerden is our special guest, leading off an entire week of "nuts and bolts" to tune up your writing. Here's Part II of her wonderful post.

Also trending toward extinction is the related issue of that versus which. In puzzling situations, determine the preferred usage by seeing if the main sentence would remain meaningful without the phrase introduced by that or which. If the phrase is essential to the meaning, use that. If non-essential, use which preceded by a comma.

The comma introducing which is key, because it’s actually the first of a pair of commas that you now recognize as parenthetical. It sets off a non-essential, non-restrictive phrase.

You also now recognize that when a parenthetical phrase falls at the end of a sentence, its closing comma becomes a period. So here’s one more way to test for the non-essential which phrase: add the closing comma where the parenthetical phrase would end if the sentence continued.

If necessary, restore the closing comma and pretend to continue the sentence so you can see whether the words enclosed by the parenthetical commas could be removed without changing the meaning of the main sentence.

Example 3: Send an email to to receive a registration form for the May 1 workshop for writers, which I’m organizing.

Notice that the phrase which I’m organizing could be removed in its entirety without diminishing the meaning of the main statement.

Compare the above with Example 4: Send an email to that includes the date of May 1 in the subject line to receive a registration form for the specified event.

The word that introduces essential information. It controls and restricts meaning, saying, in effect, that an email’s subject line determines the registration form to be sent. The that phrase is not introduced by a comma, because it is not parenthetical to the main message; it IS the main message.

Here’s the same essential/non-essential concept applied to the word who. Let's first consider Example 5: The NC state abbreviation could be removed for North Carolinians, who most likely recognize High Point as part of the state’s Piedmont Triad.

The comma before who makes the entire phrase non-essential, non-restrictive, not limiting NCers to only those who know their cities. With or without the phrase that follows the comma, the main sentence is unaffected, thereby suggesting that all North Carolinians recognize High Point as located in their state.

Take your time re-reading the examples. This stuff can be challenging.

Next, compare the above with Example 6: The state abbreviation could be removed for North Carolinians who most likely recognize the city as part of the state’s Piedmont Triad.

Because the who phrase in this sentence is not parenthetical, not separated from the main sentence with a comma, who does restrict the meaning of the words that precede it. That is, when the who phrase is part of the main sentence it limits or restricts the North Carolinians to those most likely to already recognize that High Point is in their state. (We're not sure how the rest figure that out.)

Use no comma before a that or who phrase if you want the phrase to affect what precedes it. Do use a comma before a which or who phrase to avoid changing or limiting the meaning of what precedes it. A comma before which or who is understood as introducing a pair of parenthetical commas, even though the phrase might fall at the end of a sentence and force the pair to end in a period.

Is all this clear? Would you like one more example? No problem.

Example 7: A mere $28 covers lunch and a full day of learning that no writer can afford to miss.
Example 8: A mere $28 covers lunch and a full day of learning, which no writer can afford to miss.

The difference is subtle, but distinct. The restrictive that takes the words following it and specifically applies them to what immediately precedes that, saying no writer can afford to miss the full day of learning.

The non-restrictive phrase beginning with a comma and which could be omitted, or it could be understood as a generalization that applies to anything preceding the comma. Again, take your time. I'll wait.

So what’s correct? Both. Choosing that or which depends on the meaning you want to communicate, even when your meaning is subtle. By the way, all details in the examples are correct, too.

Careful writers and astute readers notice the subtle differences in usage and mourn the loss of punctuation refinements. For writers who disregard the differences, terms that come to mind might recall the fellow at risk for losing his pants: careless, unrefined.


Chris Roerden, who doesn't pretend to be a grammarian, has nevertheless edited authors published by St. Martin's, Berkely Prime Crime, Midnight Ink, Viking, Rodale, Intrigue, and many others.

Her DON'T MURDER YOUR MYSTERY received the Agatha Award and was shortlisted for the Anthony and Macavity. DON'T SABOTAGE YOUR SUBMISSION, the all-genre version, received the 2009 Benjamin Franklin Award™ for Literary Criticism, the Florida Writers Association's Royal Palm Book of the Year Award, and ForeWord Magazine's Bronze Medal for Writing Book of the Year.


Anonymous said...

Excellent advice, Chris, but just what I expected from someone who wrote my favorite book on writing mysteries. Gloria Alden

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Chris, since you sent this to me, I've re-read it and found it most helpful. Thanks again--Joanna

Chris Roerden said...

Congratulations to anyone who plowed through a technical article like this one without the italics I'd used to set off the keywords: that, which, who (as well as all examples).
Even I had trouble understanding some of my "thats. Perhaps the more experienced bloggers among you can tell me, should I have prepared the article with HTML?