Sometimes, word choice can get tricky, especially when dealing with relative pronouns. Who, whom, whose, which and that can be tricky to use at times; you want to make sure you’re using the proper pronouns in the proper situations.
In casual speech, you’ll hear both of the following:
- Will is the guy who is sitting over there.
- Will is the guy that is sitting over there.
Both of these sound perfectly natural; you can find examples of that not only in common speech, but in classic writing, as well. Some style guides say that either is fine—others, however, insist on a more classical rule.
When talking about people, you want to use who, whom and whose, while that and which are more often used for objects. When you use that or which to describe a person, it can sound like you’re treating them as less-than-human. When you’re writing something formal, it’s best to avoid that and use the proper pronouns.
So, while phrases like “The teacher that taught me math” or “The hotel whose name I can’t remember” may sound OK, and are alright in informal speech, you should try to avoid them in formal writing.
Who and whom often give people trouble, as well. Unlike the difference between who and that, however, there’s a clear right and wrong when it comes to these two pronouns.
Who is used when the person in question is the subject of the sentence, while whom is used when the person is the object of the sentence. A rule of thumb is that the subject is the thing performing the action in your sentence, while the object is the thing that the action happens to.
So, you would say:
- The teachers who challenge us… (because the teachers are the ones doing the challenging)
- The students whom the teachers challenged… (because someone else is challenging the students)
You’ll often hear “the students who the teachers challenged…” but that is grammatically incorrect, and should be avoided.
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