Many people have been taught that you should never use the pronoun “that” to refer to a person - that a sentence such as “Girls that have long hair buy more scrunchies,” is wrong, and that it should be “Girls who have long hair buy more scrunchies.” I was taught that rule, but it turns out that it’s a myth.
It’s not wrong to use “who,” but it’s also not wrong to use “that.” I checked a bunch of major style guides. Garner’s Modern American Usage, the Chicago Manual of Style, Fowler’s Modern English Usage, and the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage all say that although it’s always fine to use “who,” it’s also fine to use “that.” For example, it’s fine to write something like “Girls that have long hair buy more scrunchies.”.
It’s been done for a very long time and the objection to it is more recent. Chaucer and Shakespeare, for example, used “that” to refer to people, and Merriam-Webster notes that usage writers only started objecting to it in the early 1900s.
related: Today's topic is who versus that
The writing side: Who Vs That
There are many conflicting online sources when it comes to determining whether to use “who” or “that” in a sentence. However, one rule is absolutely clear:
- “Who” should be used only when referring to people.
- “That” can be used for referring to people and objects / subjects.
- Correct: The house that became known for its exquisite beauty
- Incorrect: The house who became known for its exquisite beauty
People who or People that?
Do you find it difficult to know when to use “who” vs. “that”? These two words are relative pronouns that tie together groups of words to nouns or other pronouns.
Let’s take this sentence: “The runner who exercises regularly usually does the best.” Many people will say “The runner that exercises usually does the best.”
Here’s the thing: “who” (and its forms) refers to people. “That” usually refers to things, but it can refer to people in a general sense (like a class or type of person: see “runner.”). Purdue Online Writing Lab says, “When referring to people, both that and who can be used in informal language. ‘That’ may be used to refer to the characteristics or abilities of an individual or a group of people. However, when speaking about a particular person in formal language, who is preferred.”. That said, many people and some respected references prefer “people that,” and it’s not wrong. Bottom line: be consistent.
Who vs. That: Rule or Stylistic Choice?
On this language site and others, readers often question a writer’s choice of that instead of who to refer to a person. Here are some typical comments:
As the word “that” [in this sentence] refers to human beings, shouldn’t the relative pronoun be “who”?English is my second language, and it hurts to see the rampant disrespect everywhere for “a person who.” Why did you write “person that” and not “person who”? When I see “that” used instead of “who” to refer to people, it alerts me and, sure enough, the prose or speech that follows is usually sub-par. The use of “that” for “who” is something that has come about due to the lack of education about the topic.
I blame the Americans for starting the habit of using “that” instead of “who” to refer to persons. It is just plain ugly usage to have the word “that” replace “who.”
More Grammar Nit-picking: Who vs. That
The grammar rule about the use of "who vs. that" seems pretty simple: Who refers to people. That refers to groups or things. Examples:
- 1. Hillary is the one who rescued the bird.
- 2. Bill is on the team that won first place.
- 3. She belongs to an organization that specializes in saving endangered species.
- "The person that made the call..."
- "I loved her for the person that she was...."
- "The person that donated the money..."
- "The person that is causing the problems...."
That or who
Most writers use that and which as the relative pronouns for inanimate objects, and who as the relative pronoun for humans. This widespread habit has led to the mistaken belief that using that in reference to humans is an error. In fact, while most editors prefer who for people, there is no rule saying we can’t use that, and that has been widely used in reference to people for many centuries. It remains so today, especially in British writing, exemplified here.
The use of who where that is more appropriate is rare, but it happens on occasion, especially with reference to companies and corporations, which are obviously not human - for example:
"So the goal would be to look for companies who sell products that are in demand overseas."As for whether it’s okay to use who in reference to animals, this is a matter of preference. Some people think of their cats, for instance, as thinking beings with real personalities and wouldn’t hesitate to refer to them with who. The same people might not do the same for, say, a jellyfish. But most edited publications use that and which in reference to animals.
Who Versus That
The incorrect usage of that instead of who when referring to a person is one of those subtle mistakes. John is the person that went to the store is incorrect, while John is the person who went to the store is correct. It makes complete sense to use who with a person and that with an obviously inanimate object, but sometimes, there are legitimate reasons for the confusion.
The media often uses that with a person, such as "The person that robbed the bank also robbed the store" because the media wants to dehumanize the report - they want it to be dry and factual, not human. While commonly used in that way, it’s wrong. A person, even a criminal, is animate. There is also confusion about which to use when referring to animals - do they warrant a who or a that? That’s often a matter of personal opinion and usage. It’s hard to imagine that many of us would consider an ant to be a who; however, most of us probably consider good ol’ Rover to be a who. I’ve heard it recommended that named animals should be paired with who, and unnamed animals should be paired with that. In other words, both Whiskers is the cat who we all love and This is the cat that we all love would be correct.
Regardless of the instances of understandable confusion, there should be no confusion when dealing with people – while the point may seem debatable at times, we’re all worthy of being referred to as who rather than that.
How to use “who” vs. “that”
I often get confused when trying to use who vs that.
Some "that" examples that often confuse me:
- The person that went to the store.
- The people that went shopping.
- The persons that went shopping.
- The group that went shopping.
- The person who went to the store.
- The people who go shopping.
When to Use “That,” “Which,” and “Who”
The proper use of the relative pronouns who, that, and which relate the subject of a sentence to its object, hence the name. The question of which of the three words to use in a given context vexes some writers; here’s an explanation of their relative roles.
Who, Whom, and Whose refer only to people, and whose almost always does so:
- “I have a friend who can help.”
- “Whom you associate with is your concern.”
- “The person whose jacket was left behind is the likely culprit.”
That, who, or which
First things first - who, that, and which can all function as relative pronouns in a sentence or clause. This means that they are used to refer back to a person or thing that was previously mentioned. One of the distinctions between that, which, and whoas relative pronouns is based on whether you’re talking about people or things. Take a look at the following examples:
- They’re just a normal couple and their kids are everyday kids [people/person] who [relative pronoun] play in the street.
- You must have your own work area [thing] which [relative pronoun] can be cut off from the rest of the house.
- I love the watch [thing] that [relative pronoun] you gave me for my birthday.
- √ Firefighters had to help a man who was trapped in the car.
- X There are a lot of charities who need good advice.
- √ There are a lot of charities which need good advice.
Who, That, Which
Who and sometimes that refer to people. That and which refer to groups or things.
- Anya is the one who rescued the bird.
- "The Man That Got Away" is a great song with a grammatical title.
- Lokua is on the team that won first place.
- She belongs to a great organization, which specializes in saving endangered species.
The distinction between that and which, though a useful guideline, is not universally accepted as a hard-and-fast rule. For many centuries and up to the present, which has been routinely used by great writers and journalists to introduce essential clauses.