Who vs. That

In a recent newsletter, I corrected myself after some readers wrote in saying the word that should have been who in the sentence “There’s not one mother I know that would allow her child to cross that street alone.” However, it got me thinking more about this topic, so I dug a little deeper into what some of the leading English usage reference books such as The Chicago Manual of Style, The Associated Press Stylebook, and various dictionaries have to say on the matter. It turns out the majority of these references allow the use of the word that to refer to people. While I am not personally a proponent of this usage, I think it’s a good time to revisit the rules for who vs. that.

Rule: Who refers to people. That may refer to people, animals, groups, or things, but who is preferred when referring to people.

Example: Anya is the one who rescued the bird.
NOTE: While Anya is the one that rescued the bird is also correct, who is preferred.

Example: Lope is on the team that won first place.

Example: She belongs to an organization that specializes in saving endangered species.
NOTE: While teams and organizations are composed of people, they are considered groups. However, this matter is not always clear-cut. Consider this sentence: “Several of the university’s scientists who/that favored the new policy attended the meeting.” Which is correct, who or that? Does “university’s scientists” seem more like individual people than a group? In cases like this, you may use your own judgment.

You may be asking whether there are any rules guiding when to use the word that and when to use the word which. The answer is yes. That introduces essential clauses and which introduces nonessential clauses. This topic is explored more thoroughly in the grammar tip entitled “That vs. Which.”


Pop Quiz
1. Was it Marguerite who/that organized the surprise party for Johann?
2. Kepler is the scientist who/that proposed the laws of planetary motion.
3. I do not want to go on any amusement park rides who/that involve sudden drops.
4. Oliver is the president of the association who/that nurses injured wild animals back to health.
5. Most of the members of the board who/that voted against the motion to change the bylaws were present at the meeting.


Pop Quiz Answers
1. Was it Marguerite who organized the surprise party for Johann? (that is also acceptable.)
2. Kepler is the scientist who proposed the laws of planetary motion. (that is also acceptable.)
3. I do not want to go on any amusement park rides that involve sudden drops.
4. Oliver is the president of the association that nurses injured wild animals back to health.
5. Most of the members of the board who voted against the motion to change the bylaws were present at the meeting. (that is also acceptable.)

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57 Comments on Who vs. That

57 responses to “Who vs. That

  1. Michael Stack says:

    While I was taught and prefer to use who to refer to people, I can’t deny Twain: “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg.”

  2. James says:

    “Oliver is the president of the association that nurses injured wild animals back to health.”

    That’s debatable. “Of the association” is a prepositional phrase, and if you omit it, you could strictly be talking about Oliver, which would then flip it back to the preferred “who”…. am I right?

    • Since the word association is next to the phrase “that nurses,” it is the association that nurses. Omitting “of the association” changes the sentence entirely to Oliver is the president who nurses injured wild animals back to health. That sentence implies there are multiple presidents of the association, but Oliver is the one who nurses injured wild animals back to health.

  3. Barrett T. Newman says:

    It seems that there is a trend to misuse the word that in the manner described intentionally, as a kind of fashion trend or fad. Twenty five years ago when I first heard people using the word issue incorrectly, I thought that was just a fad. When I asked one of the management people where I worked about it, they explained to me that I would not understand because I was not educated, (yes, she actually said that directly to me), she went on to explain that when “educated professionals” use a word in a way that was once regarded as incorrect, it becomes correct by their using it in that way. Apparently the rules of proper English are determined by economic status rather than consensus, tradition, or widespread common usage. A quarter of a century later the misuse of issue is ubiquitous and I still cringe when I hear it. It is useful as a practical tool, if I hear someone using it, for example as an unusually clumsy direct substitution for problem, I immediately know that individual cannot be trusted to do anything of import or significance. The same is true with the intentional misuse of that in place of who, the person is an entitlement clone-drone who thinks their caste can be right while being wrong simply by virtue of their rarefied place in society.

  4. J. Meyer says:

    I agree with your explanation. The rules did not change, usage did. I was surprised to find so many people using “that” in regard to people. I still believe many are wrong. My question is ‘when did something happen to cause this change? Still, I am happy to find I am correct, at least most of the time.

  5. Huasong Yin says:

    I was taught the grammar rule as you were saying here. I have been living in the United States for a while. I watch movies (American movies) and read news articles. I noticed that almost everyone uses “that” instead of “who” when referring to people, even in articles in reputable newspapers like New York Times and Washington Post.

  6. DarkVeneno says:

    THAT is prohibited when adding extra information, you have to use WHO. It is allowed to use THAT or WHO when adding essential information.

  7. Tim says:

    In your pop quiz, you ask, “Was it Marguerite…”
    Shouldn’t the question start with “is” instead of “was”?

  8. Susan Stewart Keene says:

    In your opinion is “that” considered WRONG in this sentence …Colorado, and he recognized me as the
    psychiatrist that he has talked to previously.

    • As the article says, “That may refer to people …” Some may prefer “…Colorado, and he recognized me as the psychiatrist whom he talked to previously.”

      • Norman says:

        ‘ … to whom he talked previously’ … would be correct in my view (old journalist).
        As for the rest of this debate, ‘who’ or ‘whom’ should always apply to a person or people.
        It is true that ‘which’ can refer to a group of people but normally (if not always) only when referring to a team or club or some other formal grouping.
        Mention of an informal number of people, such as ‘some scientists’, is different. In this case ‘who’ or ‘whom’ would apply depending on the sentence construction.
        I’m sorry, but in my opinion the use of ‘that’ in preference to ‘who’ in reference to human beings is a mere colloquial crudity.

        • We’re sorry, but we don’t see where we stated a preference for that over who when referring to people. In the first paragraph of the article above we indicate our preference for who; however, that is perfectly acceptable and has been for centuries.

  9. Dan Malleck says:

    This is fascinating and thanks for the information. Example five is especially tricky because it refers to a group of people and a “board.” The that/who grammar is crucial for clarity. That is, technically when a board votes for something it is the board “that voted” but if it is a group of people within the board that voted, it would be “the people who voted.” In other words, those people may have voted for the motion but if it did not pass the board did not vote for it! In this case, perhaps rearranging the sentence will be necessary.

  10. Tom says:

    Thank you for your concise but complete description of the difference between who and that. In particular, when it comes to which to use when referring to groups. Recently, I have heard otherwise articulate media personalities, and even ad copy, they refer to groups as “who” rather than “that.” Ex: The company WHO cares about its customers rather than The company that cares about its customers. I wonder if this misuse of “Who” is intentional as an attempt to humanize the “company?”

  11. murthy says:

    1. Who is the hero that can easily accomplish this task?
    2. Who is the hero who can easily accomplish this task?
    I understand using ‘that’ or ‘who’ for people is correct but in the above examples, involving a base ‘Who’ at the beginning, does No. 2 sound odd because of two instances of ‘who’?
    Of course, I may rewrite them as ‘Which hero can easily accomplish this task?’ but if I do not want to do so, which of the two is better?
    Thanks in advance for your clarification.

    • We agree that your rewrite is the best sentence. Either sentence 1 or 2 is grammatically correct as you mention. If sentence 2 sounds odd to you, then certainly go with sentence 1.

      • David B. Barry says:

        The rewrite seemingly implies that there is a larger class of heroes from which we must choose the one best suited for the job. Sentence 1 allows us to choose from the entire population.

        • There are subtle shades of meaning that could be drawn from these sentences depending on one’s vantage point. Is there one hero or are there many? Are there none at present, but one may emerge? Do sentences 1. and 2. directly address a group of heroes, while the rewrite is addressed to a third party? And so on. Depending on the broader context of the narrative, the exact word choices could make a difference.

  12. David says:

    Surely the use of “who” or “that” is dependent on whether the pronoun is for the subject of the sentence or the its object, “who” for subject and “that” for object.

    • The pronouns who and that can both be subjects. Examples:
      Who is making the reservation?
      That was not funny.

      Likewise, the words whom and that can both be objects.
      With whom are you riding to the concert?
      You don’t expect me to ride in that, do you?
      The point of this post is the distinction of who and that as words introducing clauses.

  13. ahmed says:

    I’d like to ask you which sentences are correct.
    1.Who was Tennyson?
    2. what was Tennyson?

  14. John says:

    Thanks very much for this. It annoys me when people use “that” instead of “who” when referring to people. I was surprised that this is acceptable. Darn it! I will just have to chill and ignore it.

    • Linda says:

      It annoys me too. In fact I came to this site to copy and paste a post about this very subject to show that “who” is people and “that” is objects or groups. I also noticed that ending a sentence with a preposition is not a “crime” either. My 8th grade English teacher would be horrified.

  15. Rolf Lange says:

    People in the fields of construction, engineering, and environmental consulting, often talk about hiring “contractors” to perform a specific task. For example, a general contractor may be responsible for building a residential development, but may need to hire an electrical contractor, a plumbing contractor, etc. It is possible that the contractor could be a one-man operation. More frequently though, the contractor is a company with several employees who will be assigned the specific work tasks. Without knowing which is the case, is it preferable to say: I hired a contractor who will be roofing the buildings or I hired a contractor that will be roofing the buildings? Do you first need to know if the contractor is one person or a company with several employees? It is likely that either one is incorporated and licensed.

    • You would be safe using that in your examples since that can be used for people or companies. We doubt many people would find fault with using who since we tend to think of contractors as people even if they represent a larger company. Or just revise the sentence: I hired a contractor to roof the buildings.

  16. Aimiee says:

    Please give your opinion of the use of “that” in this sentence: You were the first kindred spirit that I ever met.
    I respectfully thank you for your time.

    • The word that is unnecessary in your sentence.
      You were the first kindred spirit I ever met.

      • Michelle says:

        I’m THRILLED to see others commenting on that being unnecessary! I find it unnecessary most of the time and for some reason it drives me nuts (along with improper use of ensure and insure). A big “Thank You” to both of you!

  17. Steve P says:

    In my view, it is not completely unambiguous whether in (4) it is Oliver who nurses or the association that nurses. For example, in the company of a group of association presidents, one might ask which association president is the one who nurses injured wild animals back to health. The answer could be the statement in (4) with “who” as the chosen alternative.

    • Since the word association is next to the phrase “that nurses,” it is the association that nurses. In your example, to be completely unambiguous, the answer would be “Oliver is the association president who nurses injured wild animals back to health.”

  18. Dorothy S. says:

    Please review your “rule” about the use of “who” and “that” when referring to persons. The use of that when referring to people is very poor English and, unfortunately, has become today’s vernacular. I wonder if you could review your work here, so that students are not confused. I teach graduate students and I do not permit the distinctions you are making re this particular word usage. I cannot refer my students to your site for that reason.

    I went to your site, hoping to obtain clarification for a student, and I am afraid that I found that error, so I do apologize if you are offended.

    Thank you so much for your attention.

    • A great many unqualified “authorities” have decreed that the relative pronoun that cannot apply to humans. This error is widespread; you are not its only well-meaning victim; and we would be interested if you could name even one reputable English scholar who would back your position.

      We understand that long-standing habits die hard, and we do not blame you for being headstrong, but you are fighting a battle you cannot win. You have been sold a myth, not unlike the myths about split infinitives and prepositions ending sentences.

      This usage of that is neither “very poor English” nor an example of “today’s vernacular.” Rather, it has been unassailable English for centuries. In “The Careful Writer” (1965), Theodore M. Bernstein says, “Which normally refers to things, who to persons, and that to either persons or things. The point is elementary and needs no elaboration.”

      Assuming you have no opposing evidence at hand to counter the eminent Mr. Bernstein’s remarks from almost fifty years ago, we humbly ask: wouldn’t it now be a kindness to your students to change your misbegotten policy on this humble pronoun?

      • Bill J says:

        This may be slightly off-topic, but in my grammar “that,” when used in a relative construction, is a clause subordinator, not a relative pronoun.

        I take my lead on this from Huddleston & Pullum’s award winning grammar “The Cambridge Grammar Of The English Language”.

        Their arguments in favour of it being a subordinator are compelling and well worth taking a look at.

    • YeahISaidThat says:

      As an English teacher who is trying to preserve what is left of our language, I heartily agree with you.

      I also wish to point out the error in this example:

      “Example: She belongs to an organization that specializes in saving endangered species.” should be written as
      “She belongs to an organization WHICH specializes in saving endangered species.”

  19. sabel says:

    please talk about Intensifiers. you’re of great help. thank you. in one you tube video, it said that ‘pretty much’ is ‘very’ and ‘not quite’ is ‘almost’? it that right?

    • Rule 5.164 of the Chicago Manual of Style says, “An adverb can be intensified with words like very and quite.” The phrase pretty much is defined as “for the most part” or “mostly.” Not quite means “almost” or “nearly.”

  20. jimmy midnight says:

    Imagine a world in which referencing people with a “that” is frowned upon, like uttering one of those seven forbidden words is frowned upon. (Well, it does evince a certain lack of respect for the rules of grammar. others, and self.)
    In quiz examples, the first three are correct, although it would be better to say that who is strongly preferred. Example number five shows a good way of discussing group members. Example four is, I grudgingly admit, grammatically correct, but it’s wrong from an eloquence point of view. It’s usually possible, with a bit of rewriting, to avoid this sort of awkwardness: “Oliver is president of a group of people who nurse…”

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