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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.)

Posted on Monday, October 29, 2012, at 2:49 pm

10 Comments on Who vs. That

10 responses to “Who vs. That

  1. 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…”

  2. 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?

    • Jane says:

      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.”

  3. 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.

  4. 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.”

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