Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Grammar Bite: Who's That?

In a recent article on the Visual Thesaurus, Simon Glickman and Julia Rubiner state that when referring to a person, the writer should always use who and never that:

For instance, you wouldn't say, "The copywriter that injured herself trying to dismount from her high horse was named Julia Rubiner"; you'd say, "The copywriter who injured herself trying to dismount from her high horse was named Julia Rubiner.

Often I agree with what Glickman and Rubiner say, but not this time. (I also didn't agree with the main thrust of the article, whose vs. of which, but that's another post). The authors don't give any evidence that using that to represent a person is wrong, other than to say "the living are robbed of their humanity." To be fair, this point was at the end of the article and was made as a quick aside. But maybe that's worse, because a pet peeve is declared, with no explanation given as to why it's wrong, and the users of this peeve are sentenced as "careless scribes" without a trial.

That's one thing with pet peeves: they're our pets. We're enamored with them. We're irrational about them, ignoring any evidence that they might not be as clear cut or as absolute as we think. Every writer, editor, and English instructor has them, including yours truly. When we write, we can exercise our pet peeves to our hearts' content. When we instruct or edit, we owe it to others to examine our peeves in the light of rationality and not simply decry their use.

The other thing with our pet peeves? They're often (though not always) wrong. And this one is no exception.

The Oxford English Dictionary (subscription required) defines that in part as:

The general relative pronoun, referring to any antecedent, and used without inflexion irrespective of gender, number, and case.

Introducing a clause defining or restricting the antecedent, and thus completing its sense. (The ordinary use: referring to persons or things.) Sometimes replaceable by who (of persons) or which (of things), but properly only in cases where no ambiguity results.

Oxford's first reference of that in this sense is from about 825. That's over a thousand years of use, if you're keeping track.

Merriam-Webster Online and Webster's New World College Dictionary also define that as representing a person or a thing. Merriam-Webster puts it succinctly: "In current usage that refers to persons or things... The notion that that should not be used to refer to persons is without foundation; such use is entirely standard."

Usage experts agree. Says Bryan Garner in his Modern American Usage, "People that has always been good English, and it's a silly fetish to insist that who is the only relative pronoun that can refer to humans." Patricia O'Conner asks in Woe Is I which sounds right, "The girl that married dear old dad" or "The girl who married dear old dad." They both sound right, she says, because they both are right.

In Word Court, Barbara Wallraff tempers the argument by pointing out that:

This usage may in some contexts sound a bit crude, but it is not ungrammatical, and it can sometimes offer a writer a graceful way out, as in "Did she say it was a man or a book that she curled up with last night?"

So if you're writing your masterpiece and you vigorously oppose using that to refer to a person, can you choose to solely use who? Absolutely. But if you're writing for a client or your company, and He Who Writes the Checks insists that you allow that to represent a person, breathe a sigh of relief: doing so won't break any grammar rules.

Do you allow that to refer to a person? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.


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Erin Brenner is the founder of Right Touch Editing, a customizable editing service. She has been an editing professional for over 15 years and is sought after for her expertise in language mechanics. She works on a variety of media in all levels of editing. In addition, she provides bite-sized lessons to improve your writing on her blog The Writing Resource and is the editor of Copyediting.com, which offers advice and training for those who edit copy. Follow her on Twitter at @ebrenner or on Facebook. Click here to read more articles by Erin Brenner.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday February 23rd 2011, 3:42 AM
Comment by: Bryce S. (Niceville, FL)
I wish I had this article to refer to ten or so years ago when I worked for a colonel that always made me replace that with who.
Wednesday February 23rd 2011, 7:03 AM
Comment by: SallyAnn at Metaphor Press
Outstanding article, thank you. I would love to read your opinion on comma splicing. It is an art form in Italian literature but so frowned on in the English language,
grammar being
not an absolute science but the semantics of a culture in its most abstract linguistic form.
Thanks again.
Wednesday February 23rd 2011, 7:49 AM
Comment by: Kenneth K.
I was not quite ready to accept that that could equal who, and yet you write so convincingly that I am convinced that you are correct.
Thank you.
Wednesday February 23rd 2011, 8:19 AM
Comment by: Gordon W. (Jonesboro, GA)
Ah, the rest of the story, or is it? Will Glickman and Rubiner return? Or is the whoveethat now settled case law? Great second round, btw.
Wednesday February 23rd 2011, 9:38 AM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks, all, for the kind words.
Wednesday February 23rd 2011, 9:45 AM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Excellent piece! But I am a "who"-er. My basic rule is "wh" words (who, which, whose, etc) for people, "that" for objects. Yet I know no firm grammatical reason for my rule, in fact I made it up myself, just to simplify my life and writing. To me, "Erin is the woman that likes that" doesn't sound as good as "Erin is the woman who likes that."
Wednesday February 23rd 2011, 10:24 AM
Comment by: Doug G. (CARROLLTON, TX)
If a person can be referred to as THAT, then grammatically speaking any non-feral animal whose gender is known, not for food use, should be able to be referred to as HE or SHE (rather than IT).
Wednesday February 23rd 2011, 10:44 AM
Comment by: Graeme Roberts (Pittsford, NY)
Great article, Erin! Like Michael, I prefer "who" in most cases, but have found some ambiguity when writing about groups of people.

For example, I might say, "the surgical team at Rochester General Hospital who first transplanted a human heart," because the personal pronoun would still work in this situation: "surgical teams around the world for whom heart transplantation has become merely routine." A foolish consistency? I would like your opinion.

It seems to make no sense to use "who" in reference to big companies, which are essentially impersonal, but partnerships with identified members require the personal pronoun: "Sprott and Funge, who established their legal practice in 1992, are generous contributors to the Community Chest."
Wednesday February 23rd 2011, 10:57 AM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Another nice thing about "that" is that it avoids the whole question of "who" vs. "whom." In the last example in the article, "that" was used to deliberately maintain the ambiguity of whether the woman curled up with a person or an object. If "who" had been used, the writer might have decided that it should be replaced with "whom": "Did she say it was a man or a book whom she curled up with last night?"

And then, to avoid having the preposition at the end of the phrase, the writer might have put it this way: "Did she say it was a man or a book with whom she curled up last night?" In that last sentence, replacing "that" with "whom" would give us this: "Did she say it was a man or a book with that she curled up last night?" ... Yikes!

If one was determined to avoid the ending preposition, and was also determined to never use "that" to refer to a person, one would be forced to choose between "whom" and "which". We could write "Did she say it was a man or a book with which she curled up last night?", but now we have implied that it was, indeed, a book, and if it was a man, he would be understandably offended by being robbed of his humanity just when he needs it the most.

That is another argument for relaxing or discarding the rule that a preposition must never appear at the end of a sentence or phrase. Who was it that said something like "Ending a sentence with a preposition is a grammatical atrocity up with which I will not put."? In any case, this is a whole different topic from the "who vs. that" issue ... how did I get here from there??

I think I'll just go back to bed, with a man, a book, and a box of chocolates. Hmm, should there be a comma after the word "book" in that list? If you make it TWO boxes of chocolates, AND a bottle of wine, I promise I'll stop writing now ...

Turn off the light, OK?
The Happy Quibbler
Wednesday February 23rd 2011, 11:52 AM
Comment by: Annette G. (Chicago, IL)
Thanks for saving me from correcting students' use of "that" instead of "who" in the future. I personally prefer to use the humanoid pronouns for people, so I will stick with "who," "whose" and "whom" in my own writing but your pointing out that "that" is not grammatically incorrect will make my life easier!
Wednesday February 23rd 2011, 12:05 PM
Comment by: Bob K. (Sun Lakes, AZ)
In my 30+ years as a writer/editor, I've been a "who" guy, but you make a good case. Yet, the word "that" in other usages may be the most overused and unnecessary word in our language. Consider Wallraff's sample above: simply delete "that" following "man or book." Voila! In Kenneth K.s comment, delete "that" in both places following "convincingly." In an edit I did yesterday, "that" was used a dozen times in one page; I deleted eight of them. No replacements required.
Wednesday February 23rd 2011, 1:47 PM
Comment by: nannywoo is back (Wilmington, NC)
I have long asked student writers to replace "that" with "who" when referring to a person, though it's not the sort of thing that affects a grade. But Erin's point about history is well taken, as is Kristine's that replacing them with "that" would make the misuse of "who" and "whom" a moot point. Maybe those of us who (that?) insist on "who" are being pedantic. What bothers me is that the grammar check function of the word processing program most of us use "corrects" the word "who" TO "that"; at least, enough students have told me that to convince me it's the case(I turn the damn thing off). I prefer to keep "who" in my own writing and don't understand why grammar check confuses the matter for my students, telling them to do exactly the opposite. On a topic that might be related, the words "people" and "persons" are both used in Erin's essay. When I (an English teacher) helped a friend who was working on a doctoral dissertation in religion, we had to agree to disagree about the words "people" and "persons"; he ALWAYS used "persons" to refer to the plural of "person," but "persons" sounded stuffy and unnatural to my ear. But I wonder. Would you say "persons who" and "people that"?
Wednesday February 23rd 2011, 4:45 PM
Comment by: agoddessinlove (I wander far and wide, CA)
Thank you and all the time.
Wednesday February 23rd 2011, 9:27 PM
Comment by: Trapper (Vero Beach, FL)
I like how you have shown there is a choice and love the "book that" twist.
Wednesday February 23rd 2011, 11:14 PM
Comment by: Sue B.Top 10 Commenter
I, too, am generally a "who"-er, but there are certainly times when "that" just sounds more natural, as many commenters have pointed out. I'm glad to know that I can use when "that" or "who", as the sentence seems to require, without disapprobation.

I also heartily agree with Bob K, who points out the overuse of "that" in much writing. Personally, the word sounds choppy to me, and can often be elided, with happy effect.
Thursday February 24th 2011, 6:12 AM
Comment by: John F. (Horsens Denmark)
In the example [that is] given, you could avoid the "that vs who discussusion" completely by omitting both: "Did she say it was a man or a book she curled up with last night?"
As long as the meaning I try to convey is not ambiguous, I don't see why I should use more words than necessary.
Personally, I sometimes try out the spelling in the mouth to decide which one feels right; it's easier to say "the man who tavelled..." than "the man that travelled..".
Thursday February 24th 2011, 7:10 AM
Comment by: Phil S. (New York, NY)
I'm not as sold on Erin's argument as other commenters. Her reasoning rests on the authority of texts and "usage experts," the latter group as wedded to their own fetishes as the Who Firsters they decry.

The most we can say is that "that" is not incorrect when referring to people, or as Erin puts it, "doing so won't break any grammar rules." That's thin sauce for making grammatical choices--particularly if one cares about precision, where "who" is the clear winner. There's really no good reason for choosing "that" over "who."
Thursday February 24th 2011, 10:20 AM
Comment by: Trapper (Vero Beach, FL)
In the example given by John F. dropping the "that", all of the sudden the tone became sensual. "that", like ice, seems to keep it neutral, per se, given you have to believe it is happening maybe in the bedroom without the "that". I still like the "book that" twist.
Thursday February 24th 2011, 1:27 PM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
After reading this article and these comments, I went back and read the article by Julia and Simon that/who started this delightful controversy. I recommend it!
Thursday February 24th 2011, 5:27 PM
Comment by: Diane M. (Toronto Canada)
I never use ‘that’ when referring to a person and have often wished I could use ‘who' when referring to nice dogs and cats. But like Bob K, I’ve found the 'less is more' rule may be invoked so that deleting a ‘that’ may improve a sentence. No need to replace it with ‘who’ in those instances.
Sunday February 27th 2011, 5:26 AM
Comment by: Stan Carey (Galway Ireland)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thank you for this sensible, well-written article, Erin. There are times when "that" works, and there is no justification for condemning the usage as ungrammatical.

Phil says that usage experts are "wedded to their own fetishes". A few certainly are, sometimes, but many others reliably take care to be as objective as possible. If they ignore data to make a case based on a pet peeve or prejudice, informed readers and writers will recognise this and simply ignore them.

I invite SallyAnn, who asked about comma splices, to read a piece I wrote defending their occasional use, and in which I collect examples of their use by skilled writers.
Sunday February 27th 2011, 12:47 PM
Comment by: Jorge E. (Miami, FL)
Using who, instead of "that" will allow me to change my writing skills that of in my Journalism class and in my writing practice in order to prepare myself for college. I thank you for this article.

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"Whose" an Animate Object?
- 12 Comments
Should "who" and "whose" be used with inanimate objects?
Conquer the dangling participle, and your writing will smarten up right away.
Subject-verb agreement sounds easy, but many cases aren't so clear-cut.