Grammar: That, Which, & Who

[G]rammar is the bane of my existence at times as a writer. I have a fairly good grasp on it despite my troubles with dyslexia, but I often find myself hung up on where to place commas, especially when it comes to non-restrictive clauses. Simply enough, the words “that” and “which” are easy enough to remember. The former is restrictive while the latter is non-restrictive. If you are confused, let me explain.

[box type=”info”]Restrictive Clauses are clauses that are essential. See what I did there? I used the word “that”. Why? Because you needed to know exactly what restrictive clauses are. Likewise, a restrictive clause never uses a comma. If you are ever in doubt, repeat the first sentence to yourself if you need a reminder.[/box] [box type=”info”]Non-Restrictive Clauses are clauses, which are not essential. See what I did there as well? I used the word “which”. Why? Because while you really do want to know the type of cause a non-restrictive clause is, the information added is optional. Likewise, a non-restrictive clause always uses a comma. In this case, I like to pretend the comma is a dam that is holding back non-essential water and saving it for a rainy day. You don’t need the information right now, but it is useful.[/box]


It would be simple enough if either clause were only limited to “that” and “which” respectively, but this is not always the case. Throwing a spanner into the works is the word “who”.  As if understanding the difference between Restrictive and Non-Restrictive Clauses wasn’t enough, “who” can be used for both all on its own.

Gah! I know. . . right?

[box type=”bio”] Restrictive Clause:

The veterinarian helped the animals who were sick.[/box]

The sentence implies that not all of the animals were sick and that the veterinarian only helped those who were. There is no comma before “who”.

[box type=”bio”] Non-Restrictive Clause:

The veterinarian helped the animals, who were sick.[/box]

The sentence tells the reader that all of the animals were sick and that the veterinarian helped them. There is a comma before “who” in this instance.

No That, Which, or Who? What now?

Not all Restrictive and Non-Restrictive Clauses are introduced by relative pronouns. This makes it even more complicated, right? When I attended grade school, my teachers always said I needed a comma when referring to someone.

They were wrong.

I made a point of explaining this to my daughter Amanda when the subject was brought up during one of her assignments in high school. She had been told the same.

[box type=”bio”] Non-Restrictive Clause:

My sister, Sally, works at the bank.[/box]

The sentence tells the reader that I have one sister and her name is Sally. Revealing her name is optional in this instance as a comma was used.

[box type=”bio”] Restrictive Clause:

My sister Sally works at the bank.[/box]

The sentence implies that I have more than one sister but her name is essential in order for the reader to know the exact sister I am speaking about.  No comma is needed.

. . .And just for the record, I am an only child. 🙂

How To Avoid Embarrassment

To avoid any faux pas, it is imperative to examine your writing. As they say, comma placement is important. It’s difference between eating Grandma and asking her to eat with you, which is a whole other lesson.

For instance. . .

[box type=”download”] Use a Non-Restrictive Clause?

Bob went to the station to pick up his wife, Judy.[/box]

In this case, it is understood that Bob is picking up his only wife and that her name is Judy. Again, her name isn’t important but is supplied anyway. A comma is needed.

[box type=”warning”] Use a Restrictive Clause?

Bob went to the station to pick up his wife Judy.[/box]

As George Takei would say, “Oh, my!”  Looks like Bob is a bigamist in this example. How embarrassing!

As a side note, I can thank Mr. Cline, who taught senior English some twenty odd years ago, for that last example. He always had a way of driving the point home. Just don’t ask him to elaborate on Edward II of England, who he affectionately referred to as “Eddie on a Stick”.


About The Author

is a blogger, writer, self-proclaimed geek & nerd, and the gyrl behind Ramblings of a Gyrl. A few cats shy of 'crazy cat lady' status and fully embraces her love of video games, films, cooking, and literature. She is currently writing her first novel for publication.

Leave a Reply