Orange leaves danced through the crisp air, and the harvest moon peeked over the horizon. Witches, warlocks, cats, frogs, and all sorts of creatures gathered in the glen, which was lit by a crackling bonfire. A hush fell over the glen as their judge emerged from his tree and flew to his perch.
The sage owl preened his feathers and peered down. “Who? Who? Who brings a case before me tonight?”
A ginger-haired witch stepped forward. “I do, your Honor. This trollop has stolen my new black cat!”
“How dare you?” spat the black-haired witch behind her. “She lies without shame, your Honor. It is she who has stolen my new cat!”
The sage owl looked from one witch to the other. He laid the tips of his wings together. “I see. And where is the cat now?”
“I’ve got him,” a warlock piped up. He pointed at the cat that was nuzzling his ankles. “Cute little fella, too.”
“Very well,” the sage owl proclaimed. “The plaintiff shall speak first. How was your cat stolen?”
The ginger-haired witch squared her shoulders. “I had just hopped on my broomstick for my nightly ride, which I usually take right after supper. The hat that I prefer to wear needed repairs, so I took it to the Mad Hatter for mending. I was only gone a few minutes more than usual, but when I returned, my little Snowball had vanished from his scratching post!”
The sage owl glanced at the black cat. “Snowball, you say?”
“Yes. And the next morning, I saw her carrying him through the bog in her grimy, thieving hands.”
“Liar!” snapped the black-haired witch. The two witches pointed their wands at each other.
The crowd, which had kept silent thus far, gasped.
“Order, order.” The sage owl swiveled his head to the black-haired witch, who grudgingly lowered her wand. “Now, what is your testimony?”
She shook her head. “I was just minding my own business, preparing a special potion that I make each year for All Hallows Eve. My little Marshmallow was helping me gather herbs.”
The sage owl glanced once more at the black cat. “Marshmallow?”
“Yes, Marshmallow. I sent him off to gather wolfbane, which he has fetched for me many times before, but he didn’t return home all day. I was sick with worry, but then I found him in the bog the next morning, as good as new. Then, out of nowhere, she ran up, accused me of stealing her cat, and snatched him from me!”
The sage owl laid his wingtips together again. “Very well… So, is it Snowball or Marshmallow? Which witch owns that cat?”
“Marshmallow,” called the black-haired witch. “Here, Marshmallow!”
“Come here, Snowball,” the ginger-haired witch coaxed.
The cat, being a cat, ignored both of them.
The owl looked from the cat to each witch in turn. Finally, he spread his wings wide with satisfaction. “I am prepared to make my wise judgment.”
The witches leaned forward. The crowd hushed.
“The cat,” proclaimed the sage owl, “shall be cut in two, with half given to each witch.”
“What?” shrieked the ginger-haired witch. “Never!”
“Are you out of your mind?” demanded the black-haired witch. “Cut Marshmallow in two? Egads, why don’t we just share him?”
“Now, there’s an idea,” said the ginger-haired witch.
“Wait,” the owl spluttered. “My wise judgment is a test! The true owner is supposed to be willing to give up the cat rather than see it harmed.”
“Your judgment’s hogwash,” said the black-haired witch.
“Really bad decision,” added the ginger-haired witch. As the owl ruffled his feathers, she turned to the other witch. “Do you still need help finishing your potion for All Hallows Eve?”
The black-haired witch smiled. “That would be lovely. Come, Marshmallow!”
“Come, Snowball,” called the ginger-haired witch. “I’ll fetch you some tuna.”
“We’ll have to agree on a name,” the other said.
The cat meowed at the mention of tuna and followed the witches from the glen. He had been looking for a witch who would take care of him, and living a double life as Snowball and Marshmallow, even for a brief time, had taken its toll. Maybe if they worked together, the witches would give him a more sensible name.
Happy Halloween! I hope you enjoyed this seasonal tale. It seemed like the perfect way to highlight a commonly misused word (“which”) with the added treat of its autumnal homophone (“witch”). The biggest point of confusion for many people is our grammar topic of the hour: when to use “which” versus “that.”
“Which” versus “that” is especially tricky because each of those words has multiple uses in the English language.
“Which” is often used as a pronoun to ask a question or follow a preposition:
- Which witch owns that cat? [interrogative pronoun]
- She tightly gripped the broomstick on which she flew.
It is also considered an adjective in some cases:
- The graveyard was quiet until midnight, at which time the dead awoke.
“Which” is used as a relative pronoun for nonrestrictive clauses, meaning that the clause it leads could be removed without impacting the sentence’s meaning:
- The crowd, which had kept silent thus far, gasped. [The crowd gasped.]
“That” could fill up its own blog series. “That” can serve as a pronoun, adjective, adverb, or conjunction. You might say it’s the hardest-working word in show business!
As an adjective, “that” is frequently used to clarify or compare:
- Which witch owns that cat?
- This broom flies higher than that
However, if we leave off the second “broom” in the previous sentence—i.e., “This broom flies higher than that”—then “that” becomes a demonstrative pronoun because it fully replaces the broom. Weird, right?
“That” is used as a relative pronoun for restrictive clauses, meaning that the clause it leads is necessary to the meaning of the sentence. In other words, it restricts the explanation that follows it. If you remove a correct clause beginning with “that,” it will alter the meaning:
- He pointed at the cat that was nuzzling his ankles. [There are multiple cats in this scene, so we need the clause to clarify which one.]
- The hat that I prefer to wear needed repairs. [The witch owns more than one hat.]
So, if you’re unsure whether to use “which” or “that” in a sentence, ask yourself whether the clause it begins is essential to the sentence’s meaning. Consider these examples:
- They gathered in the glen, which was lit by a crackling bonfire. [This refers to a specific glen.]
- They gathered in a glen that was lit by a crackling bonfire. [This indicates a number of glens, so we need the clause to narrow it down.]
There’s one more relative pronoun to discuss briefly here. “Who” can do the same job as “which” and “that” when discussing a person or people. If the clause is restrictive (same as for “that”), then you do not place a comma before “who.” If the clause is nonrestrictive (same as for “which”), then you do use a comma. Here are two examples:
- The sage owl swiveled his head to the black-haired witch, who grudgingly lowered her wand. [Nonrestrictive, so it gets a comma.]
- The cat had been hoping for a witch who would take care of him. [Restrictive, so it doesn’t get a comma.]
I hope this post lays out the devilish topic of relative pronouns more clearly for you. What other questions about pronouns lurk in the depths of your grammatical minds? Let me know in the comments, and we’ll figure them out!
In the meantime, Happy Reading, Happy Writing, and Happy Halloween!