Monday, November 17, 2008

Teaching English Grammar: Who That or Which?


Teaching English Grammar

When the Daily Writing Tips blog posted “Should THAT Be Allowed to Stand In for WHO?” on the use of the relative pronoun “that” instead of “who” and left the question open as to what the call on usage was, I decided to try to help shed some light on this frequently-taught, but oft-misused English grammar theme. Not only do EFL and English as a Second language learners, ESL, have problems with this on ocassion, but writers in English as well.
In teaching English as a foreign language, EFL, this English grammar theme comes up in my classes several times a year, so I make it a point to elaborate on it each semester. Generally, here’s what “the rules of English grammar” dictate on this.

The Relative Pronouns in English Grammar

There are a number of actively-used relative pronouns, but due to the number of them we will not go into the full expanse of them here. We’ll hold our focus at this time to the use of the three relative pronouns: who, that, and which to keep things fairly simple.

Basically, we can use

WHO for a person or personalization

THAT for a person, object or animal

WHICH for an object or animal

Who - The relative pronoun “who” can be used for a person or for a personalization when combining two ideas in seperate sentences into one compound sentence using a defining relative clause. (A defining relative clause provides for two ideas in a sentence.) However, the relative pronoun “that” can also be used in this case. Consider this example. First, two simple sentences, then a relative clause using “who” or “that” will be used to combine the two into one sentence.

The Pink Panther is a cartoon character. He almost never speaks.

The Pink Panther is a cartoon character who almost never speaks.
The Pink Panther is a cartoon character that almost never speaks.

Both sentences are absolutely correct in English grammar.

That – The relative pronoun “that” can be used for a person, a personalization OR an object or animal. Consider this example.

A computer is a machine. It can process data very quickly.

A computer is a machine that can process data very quickly
A computer is a machine which can process data very quickly

Again, both sentences are absolutely correct in English grammar.

Which – The relative pronoun “which” can be used for an object or animal. Again, let’s consider a brief example of this in usage.

A tiger is a wild animal. It is also extremely dangerous.

A tiger is a wild animal which is also extremely dangerous.
A tiger is a wild animal that is also extremely dangerous.

In this instance too, both sentences are absolutely correct in English grammar. You can use the relative pronouns which or that without distinction.

Finally, if a compound or complex sentence is created in which three or more ideas are expressed, this is referred to as a non-defining relative clause. In the interest of not confusing the subject any further, we will not go into that here at this time. Almost certainly, you can check with any intermediate to advanced level grammar text to delve further into the intricacies of this.

Hopefully, I’ve been able to shed some more light on the use of the relative pronouns who, that or which. Should any reader of Daily Writing Tips or my Teaching English as a Foreign Language blog have further questions or need a more in-depth view into the topic, please feel free to e-mail me at: lynchlarrym@gmail.com.


Prof. Larry M. Lynch is an EFL Teacher Trainer, Intellectual Development Specialist, author and speaker. He has written ESP, foreign language learning, English language teaching texts and hundreds of articles used in more than 125 countries worldwide. Get your FREE, pdf format report on CD or via e-mail, "Creative, Dynamic Ways to Motivate and Teach English as a Foreign Language to Diverse Groups of Reluctant Learners" by requesting the title at: lynchlarrym@gmail.com



1 comment:

The Norrlander said...

I think your blog is very interesting!
I'm from Sweden, studying to be an English teacher, so this can certainly be a helpful blog for me!
Just the other day I actually had a big grammar exam, this 'what, which, that' being a part of it! :)