Which or That? All About Relative Pronouns


Albert Einstein


First, let’s identify exactly what a relative pronoun is. In English, there are 3 main relative pronouns common in speech and writing: who, which, and that.

That is by far the most commonly used relative pronoun in speech as well as writing. However, that is also one of the most misused and overused words in writing. That is considered more colloquial or informal than which, and when we use a word in conversation, we automatically insert the more commonly used word in writing. Which is a more formal relative pronoun often used in academic writing, and less often used in day-to-day speech.

When to use each is influenced by a number of factors, but in general, that is used with restrictive relative clauses, while which is used with both restrictive and non-restrictive clauses. Who is a personal pronoun used when referring to a person. Inserting that when who should be used when referring to a person is one of the most common errors related to relative pronoun use, though many writers and even instructors believe it to be more of a judgment call. However, one must know the rule first before breaking it.

It’s usually easy to distinguish when to use who (or whom, whose). In the examples below, the relative pronoun who always refers to a person or people:

The woman who painted the portrait is waiting in the lobby.

The playoffs were great for the fans, whose support never wavered.

The chef, who has a new cookbook, is on the Morning Show tomorrow.

The use of that and which is a bit more complicated, and often simply a matter of preference. That is considered a general use restrictive relative pronoun. The term “restrictive” means that the clause is essential to the meaning of the sentence, as it limits, or restricts, the noun or thing it refers to.

The truck that I want is too expensive.

In the previous sentence, the clause “that I want,” further defines the noun clause, “The truck”; it limits which truck the speaker is referring to.

The boots that are red leather are the only ones I want.

In this example, we wouldn’t know which boots the speaker is referring to without the clause “that are red leather.”

So when considering restrictive relative pronouns, if the clause “restricts” or limits the meaning of preceding noun clause, it is a restrictive relative pronoun.

The previous examples show that used with inanimate nouns, but that can also be used with animate (living/human) nouns, and are considered flexible:

She is the girl that lives down the road.

He is one of the boys that always wants to play soccer at recess.

: Both of the previous examples are restrictive clauses, meaning the relative clause (that. . ._)  limits the meaning of the preceding noun clause by offering identifying information for “she” and “he.”

A non-restrictive clause is considered “non-essential”; this means that the relative clause offers additional information that the reader doesn’t really need to identify the subject. It’s info that’s nice to have, but not necessary to identify the subject of the noun clause.

Ernest Hemingway, who wrote The Sun Also Rises, is considered a minimalist writer.

He looked into her files, which she never locked.

The airline, which added flights to Omaha, is seeing an increase in passengers.

Each of the noun subjects do not need the additional clause to identify who or what they are. If you lift out the italicized clause, the sentence’s meaning is retained:

Ernest Hemingway is considered a minimalist writer.

He looked into her files.

The airline is seeing an increase in passengers.

In speech, you might notice that the use of “that” as a relative pronoun is by far more common than “which.” However, in written or academic prose, “which” is much more common. So how do you know when to use each?

If removing the words would change the meaning of the sentence, use that.

If removing the words would not change the meaning of the sentence, use which.

Let’s look at the following examples:

Trucks that have hybrid technology are gaining popularity.

If you ask yourself, do all trucks have hybrid technology? the answer would be no. So we need to have that have hybrid technology to know which trucks we’re talking about. In this case, “that” is the correct relative pronoun.

I signed the contract, which was sent certified mail.

The non-restrictive clause, which was sent certified mail, isn’t limiting the noun clause or identifying it in any way. It’s simply offering the reader some extra, interesting information. In this case, “which” is the correct relative pronoun.



If you’re not sure when to use that, which or who, follow these guidelines and you’ll be right most of the time:

Who = (whom, whose) refers to a person or people.

That = Introduces a restrictive clause.

Which = Introduces a non-restrictive clause offering extra information. You can omit the “which” clause with no harm done.





Writing About Poetry




Writing a poetry analysis is one of the most dreaded assignments for students. Poetry is often intimidating to the untrained reader and it often takes time and practice to learn how to critically analyze a poem. Once you understand some of the basic principles of literary analysis and learn some simple poetry vocabulary, writing poetry analysis won’t be so daunting.

First, let’s review some vocabulary that we’ll be using –

Basic Vocabulary

Below are some basic poetic devices that are commonly used in analysis. Some you may be familiar with:

Simile: Comparison using like or as.

Metaphor: a direct comparison.

Tone: the emotion that the speaker uses when he/she talks

Personification: human qualities attributed to non-human objects

Imagery: A way to create pictures with words, often using sensory detail

Alliteration: Repetition of the same consonant sound

Assonance: Repetition of the same vowels sound

Stanza: A grouped set of lines in a poem


Now that you’ve learned some simple vocabulary, let’s look at some ways you might analyze a poem.


The first thing you read is obviously the title. This is your first clue as to what the poem might be about. The title often reflects the subject of the poem, so come back to the title after you’ve read the poem to analyze the connection to the content.

Close Reading

To begin, it’s important to read the poem several times, at least 3. Each time you read a poem, you might find something different you didn’t notice from previous readings. Try reading it aloud. Take note of words you are not familiar with so you can look them up later. Circle nouns or phrases that stick out to you.

Who is the Speaker?

Don’t confuse the speaker or narrator of the poem with the writer. The voice could be that of the writer, expressing thoughts or feelings, but not necessarily.

The speaker of the poem may be an old man, but the person who wrote the poem might be a twenty-year-old. Is the speaker a man or woman? Is he or she addressing someone in particular? Is there more than one speaker? What is the speaker’s mood? Angry? Cynical? Happy? If you can easily pinpoint the mood, how did you know?

Do you have any clues as to the main idea the speaker wants to communicate?

What is the Subject?

The title might be the first clue to the subject of the poem. If you’re still confused, ask yourself simply, “What is the poem about?”

You could uncover clues to the subject by the speaker’s tone. What is the speaker’s attitude about the subject? Angry? Hurt? Resentful? Sad? Scared? Joyful?

What is the Situation?

Is there an event in the poem the speaker is reflecting on? Or is the speaker simply discussing a memory? The weather? A long lost love?

Often, but not always, a poem tells a story. Did something happen? Does the speaker want something to happen? Why is the speaker talking about this?


How is the poem organized or divided up? You might be familiar with traditional stanzas, or several groups of 4 or 5 lines each, but there are as many different ways to organize a poem as there are poets. A poem might have numbered stanzas, or each stanza line may have no end punctuation and flow into the next stanza.

Poems are a unified piece of writing, and for the most part, don’t jump in topic from stanza to stanza, but are usually connected in meaning. You might see some kind of link in emotions, ideas, or images, a common thread that runs through each stanza. Do you notice any common thread?

If there are no stanza divisions, try looking at the poem line by line or sentence by sentence. Do you notice any patterns of repeated words or images?


The theme is the central idea of the poem, and often the theme conveys the poem’s message. As you put all of these ideas together, what does the poem mean as a whole? What do you think is the “take away” or the big “so what?” of the poem?

Language and Imagery

The conclusions you draw about the poem will come from the language and imagery of the poem. So it is imperative to understand the denotative meaning, as well as the connotative meaning of the words.

Denotative Meaning: This is the literal, or dictionary definition of a word.

Connotative Meaning: This is the emotional or associative meaning of a word. For instance, a snake is often associated with evil. Hollywood is associated with glamour. Blue birds are associated with happiness. The color white or a cross is associated with goodness or holiness.

Poets rely on language and imagery to convey meaning. Understanding the denotative and connotative meaning in language is important to understand the meaning of a poem.

Final Thoughts

This is only the tip of the tip of the poetic iceberg on how one might analyze poetry. Once you learn a few simple terms, you’ll find there are dictionaries devoted to poetic vocabulary. One good resource can be found on the Poetry Foundation’s website, who has a large glossary of terms, found here. Another good source is Poets.org.

Writing about poetry can be demanding, but learning a few simple terms and strategies will hopefully take the fear out of your next poetry analysis.


Considering the questions above, analyze the following poems-

Tattoo by Ted Kooser

What once was meant to be a statement—
a dripping dagger held in the fist
of a shuddering heart—is now just a bruise
on a bony old shoulder, the spot
where vanity once punched him hard
and the ache lingered on. He looks like
someone you had to reckon with,
strong as a stallion, fast and ornery,
but on this chilly morning, as he walks
between the tables at a yard sale
with the sleeves of his tight black T-shirt
rolled up to show us who he was,
he is only another old man, picking up
broken tools and putting them back,
his heart gone soft and blue with stories.



Kin by Maya Angelou

We were entwined in red rings
Of blood and loneliness before
The first snows fell
Before muddy rivers seeded clouds
Above a virgin forest, and
Men ran naked, blue and black
Skinned into the warm embraces
Of Sheba, Eve and Lilith.
I was your sister.

You left me to force strangers
Into brother molds, exacting
Taxations they never
Owed or could ever pay.
You fought to die, thinking
In destruction lies the seed
Of birth. You may be right.
I will remember silent walks in
Southern woods and long talks
In low voices
Shielding meaning from the big ears
Of overcurious adults.
You may be right.
Your slow return from
Regions of terror and bloody
Screams, races my heart.
I hear again the laughter
Of children and see fireflies
Bursting tiny explosions in
An Arkansas twilight.