Wordsmithing: Can That Be Your Hero?
Is your hero the man who works magic in your heroine’s heart? Or is he the man that works magic in your heroine’s heart? Yes, this is a trick question. Which is correct—“the man who” or “the man that”?
Okay, maybe technically it’s not a trick question, but it is a tricky one for most writers. Can a human be referred to as that?
The simple answer, according to The Chicago Manual of Style, is yes. You can use either who or that and be correct. But not for animals or things. Anything nonhuman is that.
That or Which?
But what if the choice is between that and which? Ah, now we truly are into tricky. You have to know how to pull the rabbit out of the hat for this one.
First of all, we’re talking about using these two words in clauses. Don’t panic—simply think of a clause and a sentence as being the same thing.
A that-clause and a which-clause have sticky tape on them because they stick to other clauses to help them make sense. All by themselves, though, that- and which-clauses are frankly loopy. You’d make sense if you said, “The rabbit that hid in the hat is Suzy’s” or “The rabbit, which hid in the hat, is Suzy’s.” But say only “That hid in the hat” or “Which hid in the hat” and people will be backing away from you, looking for the nearest exit.
So, how do you know whether to use that or which to start your clause? Here’s where you need to grab hold of the rabbit—er, correct word. The difference is important. Stick with me now—true wordsmiths care!
That is essential…
If the content of the sticky clause is essential to the meaning of the entire sentence, use that.
In the sentence “The rabbit that hid in the hat is Suzy’s,” the that-clause is essential because only the rabbit that hid in the hat is Suzy’s. Any other rabbits aren’t. The author of the sentence wants the reader to know a particular rabbit is Suzy’s. The that-clause is essential because it identifies the rabbit (the one that hid in the hat).
…which is nice to know
If the content of the sticky clause is just extra information that’s nice to know but not essential, use which.
In the sentence “The rabbit, which hid in the hat, is Suzy’s,” the author wants the reader to know the rabbit is Suzy’s, with the bonus information that it hid in the hat. The author could just as easily omit the bonus information.
Did you notice the punctuation difference? Yep, the commas. That-clauses never use commas. Which-clauses always use commas. Here are two assists to help you remember that which and commas go together:
- Both which and comma are five letter words
- Both which and comma have the letter “c” in them.
Searching for significance
What’s the significance? It’s that you, the author, control how the reader understands your sentences by whether you choose that or which. This isn’t about ho-hum grammar rules. This is about grammar empowering you! It’s the wand that helps brings the magic of story to life for your reader.
Use it, O Wordsmith!