Who vs. That: Rule or Stylistic Choice?

By Maeve Maddox - 2 minute read

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On this language site and others, readers often question a writer’s choice of that instead of who to refer to a person. Here are some typical comments:

As the word “that” [in this sentence] refers to human beings, shouldn’t the relative pronoun be “who”?

English is my second language, and it hurts to see the rampant disrespect everywhere for “a person who.” Why did you write “person that” and not “person who”?

When I see “that” used instead of “who” to refer to people, it alerts me and, sure enough, the prose or speech that follows is usually sub-par.

The use of “that” for “who” is something that has come about due to the lack of education about the topic.

I blame the Americans for starting the habit of using “that” instead of “who” to refer to persons.

It is just plain ugly usage to have the word “that” replace “who.”

Strong convictions can be a good thing, but when it comes to the merits of who and that as relative pronouns with human antecedents, a little historical knowledge is relevant.

relative pronoun: a pronoun that combines the function of a personal or demonstrative pronoun with that of a conjunction, subordinating one sentence or clause to another.

Relative pronouns were a late development in English and other Indo-European languages. According to a note in the OED, Indo-European had no relative pronouns. The earliest form of English managed without them by means of parataxis.

parataxis: the placing of clauses one after another, without connecting words to show the relation between them.

Albert C. Baugh refers to the development of relative pronouns in A History of the English Language:

Refinements in the use of subordinate clauses are a mark of maturity in style. As the loose association of clauses (parataxis) gives way to more precise indications of logical relationship and subordination (hypotaxis) there is need for a greater variety of words effecting the union.

Again quoting Baugh, “[that was] the almost universal relative pronoun, used for all genders, throughout the Middle English period.”

The use of which began to alternate with that in the 15th century. At first, which was used only with neuter antecedents, but was sometimes used with persons. This use of which to refer to persons is reflected in the Protestant version of the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father Which art in Heaven.”

The use of who as a relative pronoun to refer to people is a development of the 16th century. Many speakers, myself included, feel that who is usually the first choice when the antecedent is human, but recognize that its use is a stylistic choice and not a matter of rule. Sometimes that may be the better choice.

The most that can be said regarding the relative pronouns who, that, and which is this:

Who is for people and which is for things, but that has always stood for either.

Related posts
Parataxis and Hypotaxis
Should ‘that’ Be Allowed To Stand In For ‘Who’?

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8 Responses to “Who vs. That: Rule or Stylistic Choice?”

  • Michael W. Perry

    I’m probably not the only one who found this article confusing. It seems to have been written by a grammar geek for other grammar geeks. Some illustrating sentences of the various options would be helpful for us mere writers.

  • thebluebird11

    I know I heard somewhere that if the noun that precedes this word (who/that) is not a human per se, that “that” can be used. For example (and please correct me if I’m wrong), you can say “The accountant that did my taxes…” or “the social worker that dealt with the case…” This is different from saying, “Joe was the accountant who did my taxes…” where clearly you are naming a definite and specific human. I’m still happier using “who” when the construction refers to a human, and I would still choose to say “the accountant who did my taxes” because obviously the accountant is a human. The only concession I would make here is that if in fact it is grammatically correct to use “that” in these cases, I will try to ignore the bad taste I get from seeing that and I will refrain from correcting it (verbally or in writing) when confronted with it!

  • venqax

    Leaving aside the separate issues of which vs that and restrictive vs non-restrictive clauses– it seem like who is always preferable to that when referring to people and that in formal writing that should be observed. In speech, however, I would agree that “that” for all things is old and established and wouldn’t consider it incorrect or illiterate.

    “The men who did the work are the ones who should get the money.”
    “The men that did the work are the ones that should get the money.”
    “The men who did the work are the ones that should get the money.”

    I would say the first is preferable spoken and written, the second is acceptable as spoken but not in writing, and the last is most condemnable in both cases because is inconsistent.

  • Kim Siever

    Happy to see a change in your position on the topic compared to a post from last month:


    As I commented last month, the that–which–who rule is a recent invention. Consider this quote from A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage (p. 555):

    “That has been the standard relative pronoun for about eight hundred years and can be used in speaking of persons, animals, or things. Four hundred years ago, which became popular as a substitute for the relative that and was used for persons, animals, and things. Three hundred years ago, who also became popular as a relative. It was used in speaking of persons and animals but not of things.”

  • venqax

    How did the position change? Today, which is still not for people.

  • Kim Siever

    From the article:

    “The use of which began to alternate with that in the 15th century. At first, which was used only with neuter antecedents, but was sometimes used with persons. This use of which to refer to persons is reflected in the Protestant version of the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father Which art in Heaven.””

  • venqax

    I see what you mean, that which was used for people in the past, though it is not any longer. But I the previous post didn’t say it never, historically, had been used that way, only that it can’t be used that way now, correct?

  • Dermot McCabe

    I understood that a defining or restrictive clause is introduced by that and a non-defining or non-restrictive clause is introduced by which. Also the pronoun which preceding a non-defining clause is itself preceded by a comma. Am I right. Does the pronoun who always precede a defining clause?

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