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.
Rule: Try not to use that twice in a row in a sentence.
Example: That is a problem that can’t be solved without a calculator.
This sentence would be better written as: That is a problem which can’t be solved without a calculator.
The best way to write the sentence would be: That problem can’t be solved without a calculator.
Example: That is a promise that cannot be broken.
Again, the above sentence could be rewritten as: That is a promise which cannot be broken.
The best way to rewrite it would be: That promise cannot be broken.
Rule: Whenever you have more than one that or which in a sentence, see if you can rewrite it in a way that removes at least one that or which.
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. We will explore this topic more thoroughly in next week’s grammar tip entitled “That vs. Which.”
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, but who is preferred.)
2. Kepler is the scientist who proposed the laws of planetary motion. (That is also acceptable, but who is preferred.)
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, but who is preferred since individual members of the board are being emphasized.)
Posted on Monday, October 29th, 2012, at 2:49 pm