Should THAT Be Allowed to Stand In for WHO?

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A reader writes to deplore the use of the relative pronoun that when the antecedent is person:

English is my second language, and it hurts to see the rampant disrespect everywhere for a person who

Here’s the offending sentence in a recent DWT post that prompted the objection:

A fervent person is one that feels very intensely about a subject.

The reader’s comment sent me to some of my recent writing to see if I make a practice of this usage.

A spot check of about seven articles yielded the following clause constructions:

…the 17-year-old who was the 23rd child to be abandoned under the law…

A ten-year-old who can follow an audiobook…

The only ones who profit from doling out reading word by word…

A student who never did anything but come to class…

…grandparents who would like to give away unruly children.

…candidates who win on Election Day

Writers who want to use the expression correctly…

Commentators who don’t know their Shakespeare…

I didn’t find any “that” examples. No recent ones, anyway.

The only explanation I can come up with for my choice of that over who in the “fervent” sentence is that the hypothetical “person”of the definition was too much of an abstraction to trigger the “who” button in my brain.

What do other readers think?

Does person that instead of person who drive you wild?

Or do you accept the use of the relative pronoun that in place of who after nouns that refer to people?

Related post: Beware of Whom

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29 thoughts on “Should THAT Be Allowed to Stand In for WHO?”

  1. I’m not opposed to using “that” when I want to deliberately dehumanize the person I’m talking about — I’m a mean person, I guess. Nya ha ha! In other situations, “who” or “whom” is always preferable.

  2. I can buy the abstraction theory. Makes perfect sense to me. Running through some examples in my head, ‘that’ sounds fine with nouns and pronouns that don’t refer to specific people.

    I think the that/who distinction is much less important than that/which. It’s not really necessary to understanding, and I think it’s on the way out because of that fact.

  3. Hmm … as a rule, no, but I suppose I can live with “that” when a sentence is VERY impersonal. (“The door must be shut by the person that opened it.”) Frankly, if a bureaucrat can’t construct a lucid sentence any other way, I’ll adapt–it’s not like I’d be able to reason with him or her, you know how they are!

    If there is anything remotely like a real person involved–like that “23rd child to be abandoned” in your first example, then absolutely not. It’s a “who” not a “that.” In cases like that, it grates on me just like when people refer to my dog as an “it.” (“Does its tail always wag like that?” Grrrr!)

  4. Q. Does person that instead of person who drive you wild?

    My answer: YES

    Q. Or do you accept the use of the relative pronoun that in place of who after nouns that refer to people?

    My answer: NO



  5. This is one of my biggest language pet peeves. Aside from the fact that I don’t like the word “that” and only use it when necessary, I think referring to people as “that” is dehumanizing. I’m a big stickler for the rules on this one, including the addition of named animals to the “who” category. We should hold on to the “who.” It’s the civilized thing to do.

  6. Yes, it DOES bother me and I thought I was the only one. Reading your post was a hug to tell me I’m not crazy (not totally, at least). I’m also feeling a tide of apostrophes that I worried were unacceptable only to me. Nice to know I’m not alone.

  7. Although I always tend to use who when referring to a person, I don’t think that is exactly correct. I have an excellent book “Woe Is I” that I use for questions like this.

    According to this book, both are correct. “A person can be either a that or who. ” Think of the Beatles song, “That Boy.” A thing is always a that.

    The author goes on to say that animals with names are not quite either. If the animal doesn’t have a name or we don’t use it, it is a that. If it has a name he or she is a who.

  8. It is a solecism, one of many creeping into the language, especially in the US.

    I’m a Brit and, almost daily, I run into some word or sentence construction that must be causing my headmaster to turn in his grave! However, as long as I retain my mental faculties, I shall continue to “fight the good fight” on behalf of the English language.

  9. I’m a person WHO can’t stand it when people use “that” instead of “who” when referring to a person and always, always, always change it when I’m editing.

  10. As an anal-retentive retired editor with a couple of now useless degrees in English, I cannot stand the use of “that” when “who” is called for. As one can tell from the previous sentence, I don’t feel as strongly about disallowing sentences that in a preposition. However, I suspect that people who would write “a person that” instead of the correct “a person who” took their degree(s) in Journalism rather than English. Someone some day must analyze the difference between writers who have these dissimilar educational backgrounds.

  11. My first thought when I saw the title was that you were referring to the latest possible actor being considered for the Doctor Who tv series . . . as in, the latest consideration was so bad, he was a “that” rather than a “who.” (Yes, I read way too many articles about sci-fi shows these days.)

  12. I prefer the use of “who” when the writer is referring to a person. However, my Gregg Reference Manual allows the use of “that” in certain sentences:

    “Who” and “that” are used when referring to persons. Select “who” when the individual person or the individuality of a group is meant and “that” when a class or type is meant. Examples: She is the only one of my managers who can speak Japanese fluently. He is the kind of student that should take advanced math.

    In the case of the “offending” sentence mentioned in DWT above, I suppose “that” would be the word of choice–but it would probably have “caught my ear” as I read it, and I would have made a (personal) mental correction.

    By the way, Gregg also says to use “which” and “that” when referring to places, objects, and animals (distinction based on essential or nonessential clauses), but notes that “‘Who’ is now often used when an animal is identified by gender or a pet is identified by name.”

    On the other hand, I work as a proofreader in the print business, and the customer always has the final word. I have learned to be very diplomatic about how I word “corrections” questions, and persistent only if I believe the wording does not convey what the customer intends. So, “flags,” yes; “crazy,” no.

  13. In teaching English as a foreign language, EFL, this English grammar theme comes up in my classes several times a year, so I make it a point to elaborate on it each semester. Generally, here’s what “the rules of English grammar” dictate on this.

    Basically, we can use

    WHO for a person or personalization

    THAT for a person, object or animal

    WHICH for an object or animal

    Since this topic is a bit detailed, I’ve written and posted a more extensive explanation of the grammatical convents of this on my blog at: should any reader like to delve into the tecnics of this further.


    Prof. Larry M. Lynch
    Santiago de Cali University
    Cali, Colombia
    [email protected]

  14. “The man that hath no music in himself,
    Nor is not mov’d with concord of sweet sounds,
    Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils.”

    The Merchant of Venice (V, i, 83-85)

  15. I will occasionally use a noun denoting a person (e.g., “carpenter”) with “that” — but I always view it as an error and will change “that” to “who” or “whom” when I spot it. “That” is not appropriate when referring to a person, even in the abstract.

  16. It’s not necessarily against the “rules,” but neither is stringing a sentence together with a litany of prepositional phrases. Just because something is “technically correct,” that doesn’t mean it is proper usage. Using the word “ain’t” (it is in the dictionary) is technically correct, but I’m sure we can all agree that it is not proper in most forms of communication.

  17. The use of “that” instead of the personal pronoun “who” is one of my all-time biggest pet peeves.

    Though such usage may not “break the rules,” it’s one of those phrases that hurts my ears. I’ve taught the “person who” versus the “person that” to ESL students and to in-house legal staff who attended my Grammar & Usage courses.

    Sometimes, it’s just a matter of principle.

  18. I can’t STAND it when people use “the person that” instead of “the person who”! I’ve jus finished studying Arabic and even in that language a there is a clear distinction between the words you use for something that has intellect ( a person) and something without (e.g. an animal, a book etc.)

  19. It’s funny that I always use the word “that” with “girl”. Somehow “the girl that” tends to sound smoother than “the girl who”

  20. I use “that” for people, things, and animals, for restrictive and non-restrictive clauses. The sentence in question jars my senses when I reach the word “one”. I might say:

    “A fervent person is someone who feels very intensely about a subject.”


    “A fervent person is somebody that feels very intensely about a subject.”

    For some reason, I prefer “who” with “someone” and “that” with “somebody”.

  21. When I was a lad (groan . . .) it was generally recognised that both ‘that’ and ‘who’ were relative personal pronouns with different functions. The distinction that follows was also taught in foreign universities where English was taught.

    The realative clause can be considered ‘limiting’ or ‘descriptive’. An example will make this clearer.

    The girls, who are wearing long dresses, are going to the ball. This is the descriptive usage, indicating that the girls are going to the ball and, by the way, they are all wearing long dresses. In contrast:

    The girls that are wearing long dresses are going to the ball. This is the limiting usage, indicating that only the girls clad in long dresses are going; others in unsuitable attire are not. Grammarians even prescribed the use of commas with the descriptive case and proscribed their use with the limiting case.

    I don’t think there are many of us left that still make the discinction. (Yes – that still make . . .) because it’s a limiting clause.)

  22. In my own school days, we were taught to use “who” to refer to persons, “that” to things and ideas, with restrictive use of “who” indicated by whether the clause thus introduced was set off by commas: presence of commas indicate clause is nonrestrictive, absence that it’s restrictive.

    The that/which distinction is where different words are used: “that” introduces a restrictive clause (and no commas), “which” a nonrestrictive clause (set off by commas).

    I find that people tend to use “which” for all clauses, restrictive or not. Strunk & White argue against this usage.

  23. I’ve definitely noticed a tendency for my English Literature undergraduates using that rather than who to refer to people or characters. I, too, find the whole tendency a little sinister and dehumanising.

  24. I wonder if people who are overtly annoyed by the use of “that” instead of “who” have talked themselves into being overtly annoyed by the use of “that” in place of “who”.

    On the face of it, the rule makes sense:

    Who — people
    That — abstractions, animals, things

    And it’s nice to have the separation. I think it’s easier to hold on to such separations, since English has so few concrete examples of definitive rules.

    I’m sure if we did a survey of the classics that were studied, you’d see a ton of Thats for Whos . . . and no one’s head exploded.

    Or . . . had it?

  25. Brandon,
    I’m in the process of reading Trollope’s Barchester novels. He thats for who all over the place.

    I think your point that English has so few concrete examples of definitive rules explains why discussions of such matters sometimes become so very acerbic.

    People with tidy minds want English grammar to be tidy.

    In my experience, the angriest comments come from readers who cannot bear it when other speakers insist on saying things that are “not logical,” like the “couldn’t care less” faction.

    When it comes to English usage, logic does not always triumph. Language is messy, like life.

  26. I give my students two reasons to use “who” to refer to people.

    Several years ago, in a night class, I received a paper from a woman in her mid-thirties detailing her recent divorce (not the assigned topic, but she felt the need to “share”). I asked the class to write in third person, so she wrote about the woman and the man. Every time she mentioned the woman, she used “who”; every time she mentioned the man, she used “that.” I asked her whether treating her husband like a thing had anything to do with her divorce. She hadn’t noticed that difference. “Show the paper to your ex,” I suggested, “and see whether he spots it.”

    A few years later, a white male student handed in a thoughtful, sympathetic paper about racial discrimination. However, he always referred to whites as “who,” and to blacks as “that.” He, too, had not noticed. “Show it to an African American,” I said. “Not before I revise it,” he replied.

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