Who or That – That Is The Question

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This is a guest post by Charles Ray. If you want to write for Daily Writing Tips check the guidelines here.

Some might think me an old fashioned, stuffy person when it comes to grammar. I realize that language, whether written or spoken, is a living thing, and that it changes with time; but, there are some modern conventions that I have problems with. Some things that young people say and write these days grate on my ear, and I resist them with all my might.

One of the conventions that really gets my dander up is the use of ‘that’ in sentences when logic, and my ear, tells me that ‘who’ would be more appropriate. Here, for instance, is a sentence I encountered recently in a paper written by a college graduate: “The judge that decided the case came from the lower court.” Now, I assume the judge in this sentence is human, and when I struggled with English grammar many decades ago, this sentence would have earned red marks all over the page – and quite likely a failing grade. I would have been told in no uncertain terms that the correct formulation is, “The judge who. . .”

I have been chided by many of my colleagues for my fussiness over this particular issue; and it is just one of many modern grammatical conventions that send me into orbit when I encounter them. They’ve pointed out that this is not ‘incorrect,’ and besides, it has become accepted usage among a large number of writers.

Well, not this writer. Correct, it might be, and I’m not entirely convinced of that, but it just doesn’t sound right. It grates on my ear when I hear or read it. Just because a lot of people do something doesn’t make it the right and proper thing to do.

In my dictionary, one of the definitions of ‘that’ is, “Adj. Being the one singled out or understood.” ‘Who,’ on the other hand, is defined as “What or which persons used as a relative pronoun to introduce a clause when the antecedent is a human, or is understood to be a human.”

From these definitions, I will grant there is some merit to the argument that using ‘that’ instead of ‘who’ is not incorrect, per se. But, when we write, the purpose is to communicate, and when a ‘correct’ convention gets in the way of communication, it is ‘wrong.’ The language and its grammar are constantly changing, but this is no reason for us to blithely accept each change. We should in fact firmly resist any change until it is proven to be not merely correct, but right. I have not been convinced that substituting ‘that’ for ‘who’ is right, and until I am, I will continue to be the grammar cop who stands in the middle of the street with hands out saying, “Stop!” And, that is all I have to say about ‘that.’

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18 thoughts on “Who or That – That Is The Question”

  1. In New Delhi where I live, I get asked if I have received “the invite”. I grit my teeth but nobody in this neck of the woods seems to refer to an invitation. Common usage is not always correct usage!

  2. I thank the author for his insight on the use of ‘who’ or ‘that’ in sentences. It makes sense to use ‘who’ in most cases. However, it is also essential for us to open up and change with the time. Just because it was deemed correct in the past does not make it stands the test of time. The changing usage of word in a sentence over time reflects the changing nature of human being. We like to improve and simplify our lives. I think we should write the way we speak to make our writings easy to understand.

  3. I contend that as long as there is a significant population of people for whom the “wrong” usage “grates on” one’s ear, then the speaker or the writer best conform to the defined usage.

    Using language correctly is like using learned techniques for painting or playing the right notes in a musical score. A hyper focus on correctness at the expense of expression doesn’t seem right. However, greater skill and expertise at employing the tools broadens one’s expressive medium. Misuse or ignorance—of a word, of visual perspective, of the score—limits the impact of the desired communication through distraction. The message is hijacked by the mistake.

    In writing, especially, academically accepted conventions have the best chance to be understood by a greater percentage of readers. Writing as one speaks can be accomplished without grammatical and usage mistakes. Writing gives us a chance to improve our speaking through the slowing down and care we take when doing so.

    “Mistakes” are less grating in private and casual communications where “text-ese” and the flouting of other conventions are not only permissible but signal membership in a culture of hipness, youth, and creativity. Dig it?

    Alas, Charles, that is neither you nor I.

  4. I’m with Charles. Using “that” instead of the personal pronoun “who” when referring to people is one of my pet peeves. And although it may be acceptable to use “that” in such cases, it doesn’t mean I’m going to do it. For me, there is no debate.

    As far as I’m concerned, the only debate on using “that” or “who” arises when referring to animals and pets. And there, I guess it depends on the relationship you have with the animal. 🙂

    “Of my three cats, Boyzee is the one who weighs the most.”

  5. I’ve been teaching grammar since 1972 and for most, if not all, of that time I’ve taught that the choice of “who” or “that” to refer to a person is a personal one.

    I’ve never seen a book that proscribes against the use of “that” to refer to a person.

    If you are not comfortable with that usage, then don’t let the “person that” construction escape from your mouth. However, I think it’s fine with grammar teachers.

  6. Fowler A (Dictionary of Modern English) is, as ever, worth reading on this subject under ‘that, rel.’ (By the way readers, we are dealing with ‘that’ as a relative pronoun, not as an adjective.) To quote in extract: “What grammarians say should be has perhaps less influence on what shall be than even the modest of them realize; usage evolves itself little disturbed by their likes and dislikes.’ And then, “The relations between ‘that’, ‘who’, & ‘which’, have come to us from our forefathers as an odd jumble.”

    While being immensely enlightening, the rest if the article deals with ‘which and ‘that’ and we must turn to his entry on ‘which(that)(who)’ for more particular guidance. Here we find under General: “(C) of ‘who’ and ‘that’. ‘who’ suits particular persons, & ‘that’ generic persons.”

    Under (9) ‘who’ and ‘that’ he goes further. ” … At present (and he was writing in 1911) there is much more reluctance to apply ‘that’ to persons”. And that is still evident from this correspondence 98 years later! “Politeness plays a great part in idiom… At any rate the necessarily defining ‘that’ is displaced by the not necessarily defining ‘who’ especially where the personal pronoun to be defined denotes a particular person or persons,and holds its own better where the person is a type or generic. In ‘It was you that did it’ the ‘it’ defined is the doer – a type, not an individual.”

    He goes on to cite “The only man that I know of’ or ‘Anyone that knows anything knows this”. Then note the following examples:’…an enemy that has nowhere been successful’ [‘who’ is allowable, ‘that’ is preferred].
    ‘They are harassing an enemy who is moving in the open’ [‘that’ is allowable, but less suitable].
    ‘Among other distinguished visitors that the Crawfords had…’

    He concludes: “To increase by degrees the range of ‘that’ referring to persons is a worthy object for the reformer of idiom, but violent attempts are doomed to failure”!

  7. The examples given by Tony make me wonder if “who” doesn’t connote more familiarity with the person referred to; and “that” indicates a more generic, or less personally know, person. Then it becomes a matter less of what is correct grammatically, but a distinction made by the writer. What do you think?

  8. “Ah, so you are the person who is being singled out or understood.” sounds much better to me.

    But from what I know, it is actually more traditional to use “that” when referring to a subject which is neither a proper noun or a pronoun.

    So there is no doubt that with Jessy or Charles we would use “who”, and if we say he or she we would use “who” as well, but if Jessy was a banker or a student or if we referred to her as by any other noun without introducing her personally, we would use “that” — at least traditionally.

    So basically the “rule” of using “who” to refer to anything which can be logically conjectured to be a human, was a development of the modern age and its changed values on “human worth” and “respect for other beings” etc.

    Personally I prefer to use the modern rule of putting using “who” with the judge, just because I also use “who” when referring to animals for the same reason that people these days think it is disrespectful to refer to humans as “that”.

  9. I would like to clear out a grammar issue at the office once and for all. In their reports it is a common practice to write: ”We have met with (name of company) WHO suggested that…….” In my book, who refers to persons, that or which refers to an organization (company) or groups.

    I correct them by writing instead: ”We have met with (COMPANY NAME)’s representatives who…….”

    But we would never say: ”It is Microsoft WHO created …….”

    Your input will be greatly appreciated.


  10. Try this: ‘who’ should be used to start a secondary clause in the same way as ‘which’; otherwise, ‘that’ should be used.

    Unfortunately, the ‘who’ matter will probably not be resolved until our chattering classes (newsreaders, reportes, politicians, etc.) recognise the, often more significant, difference between ‘that’ and ‘which’!

    The TV presenter that does not understand this difference is Jeremy Paxman, who is otherwise entertaining.

  11. Thank you for referring to Fowler, Tony. That was enlightening. I mean that sincerely, not sarcastically, btw 🙂

    Doesn’t the usage of “that” versus “who” have to do with whether the clause is restrictive or non-restrictive?

    I taught English for many years. I am fairly certain about this.

  12. I agree entirely with Charles. I think that the reason for the growing, incorrect usage of ‘that” arises from uncertainty by many whether to say ‘who’ or ‘whom’. It also reflects the laziness of some and resistance by others to speak proper English. The result is not only a bastardisation of the language but a deterioration in communication skills generally, something we should not be proud of or try to defend. Unfortunately, so many people are now more interested in communicating in abbreviations such as found in texting that our new generation is starting to sound like robots. And when it comes to writing in real sentences, the reduced skill set is such that the intended meaning is poorly presented and hard to understand. Modern usage is fine and can be added to the vernacular but why must this be at the expense of the basic structure and rules of proper English. This certainly does not happen with other languages.

  13. The author wrote: “…and it is just one of many modern grammatical conventions that send me into orbit when I encounter them.”

    ^^^ Shouldn’t it be “sends” instead of “send”?

  14. >>Paul Sheehanon February 02, 2015 11:34 am
    The author wrote: “…and it is just one of many modern grammatical conventions that send me into orbit when I encounter them.”

    ^^^ Shouldn’t it be “sends” instead of “send”?<<

    I realize this was posted over 2 years ago and you probably won't see this but:
    •conventionS=plural which means the verb is
    send (which means the author is correct)
    •convention=singular which means the verb is sends
    *Convention sendS, conventionS send
    I hope English is not your first language.

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