Too many “whiches”

relative pronouns

I have been proofreading and editing articles written by lawyers for the past 25 years. Lawyers are very fond of long sentences. Often these contain numerous phrases starting with which.

Not only are these long sentences difficult to read and can often be split into two or three shorter ones, but many times the word which is used instead of that. They are not interchangeable – each has its place. Let me explain.

Which or that

That introduces essential information (also called a restrictive clause). Without it, the sentence doesn’t make sense.

  • Example: The house that I want to buy is in a state of disrepair. When shortened to “The house is in a state of disrepair” the context is missing. The fact that it’s the one I want to buy is the point of the sentence. Wrong would be: The house which I want to buy…

Which is used for optional information (also called a non-restrictive clause). It is added between commas and can be removed without the sentence losing its meaning.

  • Example: The house, which is in an established suburb, needs work before I can move in.
    The information about the suburb is not that relevant, so the phrase between commas could fall away.

When deciding whether to use which or that, ask yourself whether the phrase you’re adding is disposable (use: which) or essential (use: that).

Better without “which”

Although non-restrictive clauses (those with which between commas) have their place, often sentences can be split in two, making them more reader-friendly.

  • Correct use of which:
    His rude and obnoxious behaviour, which explained why he didn’t have any friends, usually brought out the worst in people.

    But even better would be doing away with the non-restrictive clause and rather tell the story in two sentences: His rude and obnoxious behaviour usually brought out the worst in people. His disagreeable nature also explained why he didn’t have any friends.

  • Correct use of which:
    A financial adviser took out a professional indemnity policy, which was meant to indemnify him against legal liability.

    Better writing: A financial adviser took out a professional indemnity policy meant to indemnify him against legal liability.

    Even better: A financial adviser took out a professional indemnity policy as protection against legal liability.

Which has its place, but often you can do without it altogether.

Who versus that

Who is used for people and that for things. Although it’s not wrong to use that for people occasionally, it makes sense to use who when possible, simply because the word that is used so often.

  • Examples:
    Marie Curie was the first woman who won a Nobel Prize.
    The SPCA is an organisation that cares for homeless animals.

In case you’re interested

Who, which and that are called relative pronouns. A relative pronoun is used to connect a clause or phrase to a noun or pronoun.

©Andrea Paulsen

Me, myself, and I – the personal pronoun puzzle

personal pronoun puzzle

A personal pronoun is a substitute for the name of a person or object and can indicate gender, as well as singular or plural.

Person Subject Object Possessive Reflexive
1st singular I me my/mine myself
2nd singular you you your/yours yourself
3rd singular he, she, it him, her, it his, her, its himself, herself, itself
1st plural we us our/ours ourselves
2nd plural you you your/yours yourself
3rd plural they them their/theirs themselves

Subject-object confusion

The key to using the correct pronoun is whether it’s the subject or the object of a sentence.

The subject in a sentence is the person performing an action.

  • I drive to work every day.
  • I am going on holiday in December.
  • I phoned Julie yesterday and left a message on her voicemail.

The object in a sentence is the person on the receiving end of the action:

  • Julie called me back today.
  • My boss asked me to work next Saturday.
  • This must remain between you and me.

Confusion often arises when we add another person:

  • Joe and I are going on holiday. (subject)
  • My boss asked Julie and me to work next Saturday. (object)

The same principle of subject and object applies, but people often get it wrong when it involves two people. If the subject and object in a sentence aren’t clear to you, just try the sentence without the second party or just use the plural.

  • “Joe and me are ready.”
    Wrong, because you’d never say: “Me am ready”, but rather “I am ready.”
    Correct: “Joe and I are ready.”
  • “It’s between you and I.”
    Wrong, because you’d never say, “It’s between we”, but rather “It’s between us”.
    Correct: “It’s between you and me.”


Many people use between with the subject pronoun I.

Between, with, to, and from are prepositions. They must be followed by an indirect object pronoun, in the case of the first person, that’s me.

Reflexive pronouns

A reflexive pronoun represents the subject when that person is mentioned a second time in the same sentence. It never stands alone.

  • Example: I baked the cake myself.
  • Typical mistake:
    Q: Who was at the party last Saturday?
    Wrong: Myself and the guys from work.
    Correct: The guys from work and I.
    This is a phrase consisting solely of the subject. The full sentence would be:
    The guys from work and I [subject] were at the party [object].

Reciprocal pronouns: Each other vs one another

Each other is a reciprocal pronoun between two people: Be kind to each other.
One another is a reciprocal pronoun between a group of people: Be kind to one another.

Indefinite pronouns

Indefinite pronouns like everyone, everybody, no one, and nobody are always singular.

The singular “they”

It always sounds clumsy to write he/she to be gender inclusive. Let’s face it, you wouldn’t talk like that. It’s much more elegant to use the singular they, and it’s gender neutral.

Instead of saying: An employee may only apply for leave once he/she has cleared the dates with his/her manager.

Rather say: An employee may only apply for leave once they have cleared the dates with their manager.

©Andrea Paulsen