When to use ‘that,’ ‘which,’ and ‘who’

Keeping these relative pronouns straight can be difficult at times, but it’s always important.

Ragan Insider Premium Content
Ragan Insider Content

The proper use of the relative pronouns who, that, and which relate the subject of a sentence to its object, hence the name. The question of which of the three words to use in a given context vexes some writers; here’s an explanation of their relative roles.

Who, whom, and whose

Who and whom refer only to people, and whose almost always does so:

“I have a friend who can help.”

“Whom you associate with is your concern.”

“The person whose jacket was left behind is the likely culprit.”

(Whose is sometimes used to refer to an object, as in “Notice the car whose headlights are off.”

This awkward usage should be replaced by, for example, “Notice the car that has its headlights off” or, better, “Notice the car with its headlights off.”)


That refers mostly to things, though a class or type of person is also sometimes referred to by this pronoun:

To read the full story, log in.
Become a Ragan Insider member to read this article and all other archived content.
Sign up today

Already a member? Log in here.
Learn more about Ragan Insider.