Using Relative Pronouns in APA

APA Editing

When working on your dissertation, it is of utmost importance to keep your writing clear and concise––a fundamental aspect of APA and scholarly writing. Maintaining writing at a scholarly level includes identifying and using the correct pronouns when referring to the subject in your sentence. A pronoun must agree in gender (i.e., masculine, feminine, or neuter) with the noun it replaces. This rule extends to relative pronouns, or pronouns that link subordinate clauses to nouns. Use who for human beings; use that or which for nonhuman animals or things (APA6, 3.20).

Correct: The teenagers who broke into the zoo were quickly apprehended; the lions that escaped were not.

Incorrect: The zookeepers that caught the teenagers were awarded a medal; the lions who escaped were not.

Relative pronouns (i.e., that and which) introduce an element that is subordinate to the main clause of the sentence and reflects the relationship of the subordinate element to the main clause. Therefore, select these pronouns with care; interchanging them may reduce the precision of your meaning.

That clauses (called restrictive) are essential to the meaning of the sentence. Which clauses can merely add further information (nonrestrictive) or can sometimes be essential to the meaning of the sentence. APA prefers to reserve which for nonrestrictive clauses and use that for restrictive clauses.


  • The cards that worked well in the first experiment were not useful in the second experiment. [Only those cards that worked well in the first experiment were not useful in the second; prefer]


  • The cards, which worked well in the first experiment, were not useful in the second experiment. [The second experiment was not appropriate for the cards.]

Consistent use of that for restrictive clauses and which for nonrestrictive clauses will help make your writing clear to the reader, enhancing your dissertation to a more scholarly level.

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