Let’s take it as a given that writing clear, conventional, grammatical prose is a desirable goal for your website content. One aspect of English that is too often overlooked is the proper use of pronouns—in particular, relative pronouns.
Shake Hands With Your Relative Pronouns
As you will recall, pronouns are words that stand in for nouns. The relative pronouns—called that because they typically help relate a descriptive phrase to the main sentence—make up a small subset of all pronouns. How small? There are only five relative pronouns in common use:
In addition, there are a few more relative pronouns that appear in rare circumstances:
- When (Often used as an adverb, when can be used as a pronoun for nouns of time: Spring is the season when some birds migrate from southern lands.)
- Where (This word also appears more often as an adverb, but where can be used as a pronoun for nouns of location: Düsseldorf is the city where I met the love of my life.)
A relative pronoun is used to begin a short phrase—called a relative clause—that describes a noun that already has appeared in the sentence. This sort of phrase can also be called an adjective clause, because the clause as a whole has a descriptive effect much as an adjective would. Some examples of sentences with relative clauses are…
- Three years on, the lion that Tony had raised from a cub was becoming a household nuisance.
- I always treasure the opinion of Mrs. Fenstrom, who was considered “dotty and then some” by everyone else in the neighborhood.
- My grandmother’s peach pie, which typically contains four times the rum called for in the recipe, won first place at the County Fair this year.
- The policeman, whom my Dad just punched in the nose, had clipped our Oldsmobile a few days earlier during a high-speed chase.
- The girl whose bike was stolen is a notorious grade-school bully.
If you are an observant reader, you will have noticed that the descriptive clauses in middle three sentences are set off by commas, while the first and last examples do not use those commas. This illustrates an important difference in the two types of relative clauses. Restrictive relative clauses provide essential information that is critical to specifying the noun, and those clauses are not set off by commas. Consider the first sentence: it’s possible that Tony owns many lions, so the writer had to be clear about identifying the one lion Tony raised from infancy. In the last sentence, it’s essential information that this girl is the one who lost her bicycle, so that restrictive clause isn’t separated by commas from the rest of the sentence.
In contrast, nonrestrictive relative clauses provide information that is NOT essential, so commas are used to show these clauses can be considered less important to the main thought of the sentence. What the neighbors think of Mrs. Fenstrom, how my Gran made an “adult” peach pie, and how my father lost his temper—the writer considered all these to be side-trips from the main thesis of the sentences.
Use “That,” Not “Which”
Here’s the secret you weren’t taught in grammar school: not all relative pronouns are equal. They don’t serve identical functions, and so they can’t be exchanged for one another willy-nilly.
Although you may have been instructed that “which” and “that” are roughly equivalent, that’s not really true. In American English usage, “which” is limited to referring to nouns representing animals and things. The word “that” has a broader application, because it can also refer to people.
However, “which” has one function that is not duplicated by any other relative pronoun: it can refer to a whole clause. For example, consider this sentence: Claudette danced for hours at the Autumn Cotillion, which tended to discredit her claim that she was suffering crippling pain after her car accident. Here, the word “which” encompasses the whole meaning independent clause “Claudette danced for hours at the Autumn Cotillion.”
Many language authorities prefer “that” over “which” whenever possible. Some say that “which” should never be used with restrictive relative clauses. Some say that “which” should be used only to refer to inanimate things and concepts, never people or animals. I think these rules are too rigid and a wise writer can ignore them on occasion; for instance, if a sentence already contains several uses of the word “that,” substituting a “which” may clarify the meaning. Nevertheless, given how modern grammarians frown on overusing “which,” there is no harm done by giving preference to “that” whenever possible.
You Make the Call
When you’re responsible for producing content for your professional website, you get to decide which rules of English you will follow and which you’ll ignore. That’s perfectly okay! You just need to know that if you wander too far afield from conventional usage, some of your readers may decide not to follow along. A quirky writing style can interfere with your message.
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