Who vs. That

August 3, 2011

in Technical Writing

There are many conflicting online sources when it comes to determining whether to use “who” or “that” in a sentence. However, one rule is absolutely clear:

  • “Who” should be used only when referring to people.
  • “That” can be used for referring to people and objects/subjects.
For Example:
Correct: The house that became known for its exquisite beauty
Incorrect: The house who became known for its exquisite beauty

There are two very reliable sources that let us know “who” and “that” are interchangeable when it comes to referring to people:

The first is Jean Yates, who says in her book, The Ins and Outs of Prepositions:

An adjective clause can identify a noun. The clause comes right after the noun.

TO IDENTIFY A PERSON, AN ADJECTIVE CLAUSE CAN BEGIN WITH WHO(M), THAT,

The man who(m) …
The man that ….

The people who(m) …
The people that …

Secondly, the Merriam Webster dictionary, which says of “that”:

a : the person, thing, or idea indicated, mentioned, or understood from the situation b : the time, action, or event specified c : the kind or thing specified as follows d : one or a group of the indicated kind

Using “Who” In The Singular Person

In the singular person, it is preferable to use “who”. For example:

Peter, who was a fine marksman, shot the thief with expert accuracy.

Because you wouldn’t say:

Peter, that was a fine marksman, shot the thief with expert accuracy.

However, you can use “that” on occasion for the singular person. A writer might do this when referring to someone they don’t know personally or have a name for. For example:

The guy that came to fix my water pipes last year said the pipes were very worn.

Using “Who” and “That” In The Plural

In the plural, we can use “that” or “Who”. For example,

Men that act in this way are quite despicable.

Men who act in this way are quite despicable.

As a general rule of thumb use “who” in the singular person, and use “who” and “that” where appropriate in the plural person. But never use “who” to indicate an object/subject, instead use “that” for that purpose.

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

joe April 5, 2014 at 9:37 pm

which is correct?

The cat WHO came for dinner or

The cat THAT came for dinner

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Chuck A. February 8, 2018 at 9:09 am

I suppose using ” that ” is the preferable choice since we use the pronoun ” it ” to refer to animals. We also use ” it ” as a pronoun for things.

I guess if the story assumes that the cat has a sense of consciousness equal to a human being, then probably the pronoun ” who ” would be the preferable choice.

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Carl Ratner July 10, 2014 at 12:18 am

“Who,” rather than “that,” is always used in non-restrictive clauses like “Peter, who was a fine marksman….” It is not because it is singular, but because it is non-restrictive. You would say, “The policeman of Chicago, who are noted for their bravery, are not adequately compensated.” Not “The policemen of Chicago, that are noted for their bravery, are not adequately compensated.” The number has nothing to do with it. If the clause is non-restrictive (usually employing commas) use “who” for people and “which” for things. If the clause is restrictive (and no commas should be used), use either “who” or “that” interchangeably for people, only “that” for other nouns. “The guy who came to fix my pipes” or “The guy that came to fix my pipes” are equally correct. “The letter that I wrote to the mayor was published in the paper.” As opposed to “The letter, which I happened to write while sipping tea, was published in the paper.”

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Graceland July 20, 2016 at 11:45 am

You put the lime in the coocunt and drink the article up.

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Lance August 17, 2014 at 5:32 pm

At long last, a very clear explanation on the use of ‘who’ as opposed to ‘that’! When to use ‘who’, ‘which’, and ‘that’ has not been particularly an issue to me. I only have to think that as long as I can place commas around ‘who…’ and ‘which…’ to add, say, items or explanation about the subject (non-restrictive), I’ll be fine with my employment of ‘who’ and ‘which’. I would use ‘that’ when I think the sentence can stand alone or can be understood without further addition of items and explanations surrounded by commas.

Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU!

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Lance August 17, 2014 at 5:37 pm

My apologies for committing errors (omission and/or addition of certain words, wrong spelling, spacing, etc.) in my reply. I failed to proofread my sentences.

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T. Clark September 10, 2014 at 4:52 pm

What about when an entity made up of persons is involved? I’m reading a research paper for a friend and just read a sentence about U.S. states “who implemented Medicaid programs.” Is that usage correct?

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DWilliams March 24, 2016 at 9:08 pm

I say “states that” or “states which.” To choose between ‘that’ or ‘which’, I think of ‘which’ as meaning ‘by the way’ and ‘that’ as meaning ‘not the others.’ So, it’s either, only those “US states that” implemented Medicaid (and not the other states) or “these “US states, which,” by the way, implemented Medicaid. Google “demonstrative pronouns” and “relative pronouns” to learn more.

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James U Hammond December 1, 2016 at 9:49 pm

Which is correct?

A) The metric indicates the percent of staff who volunteer for the charitable event each year.

B) The metric indicates the percent of staff that volunteer for the charitable event each year.

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Bill Wojciechowski February 22, 2017 at 12:51 pm

Since we are discussing grammar, please note the “faux pas” below in the 2nd sentence. All commas and periods need to be placed inside quotation marks.
CORRECT VERSION: In the plural, we can use “that” or “Who.” For example,
INCORRECT VERSION: In the plural, we can use “that” or “Who”. For example,
U
sing “Who” and “That” In The Plural

In the plural, we can use “that” or “Who”. For example,

Men that act in this way are quite despicable.

Thank you. WW

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Chuck A. February 8, 2018 at 9:38 am

I did some research about the rules, regarding the comma and the period being inside the quotation marks, and what I’ve found depends on the writer’s style of writing. The British usually position their commas or the periods outside of the quotation marks, and the American style of writing always have their commas and periods inside the quotation marks.

I don’t really know if my research is correct, but if my research is wrong, I’d like to know why since I am in the process of learning.

I’m not an expert, but I am an enthusiast of the English language.

Thank you 😀

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Marion May 9, 2017 at 1:52 pm

Sorry, but this is incorrect. Animals have genders, and thus–are given the respect of “who,” as opposed to “that.” In the world of horses –horse racing, or any other equid sport–horses ALWAYS are referred to as “who”–never, ever, “that.” Never “it,” but rather the respect of her/his gender designation: “She went to the barn,” etc. To do otherwise in the world of equid sports would be to let everyone know that you’re a Visigoth, and clearly not worthy of respect, yourself.

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Mary G. August 22, 2017 at 11:20 pm

I’m not a professional linguist, though my Mother was a school teacher (and brilliant, …Phi Beta Kappa brilliant), and she taught me proper English.

It drives me mad when I see people being referred to as “that” or “which”. It’s de-humanizing. I wouldn’t be shocked to see the same writers use “It” rather than He or She.

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Eddie July 25, 2018 at 4:12 am

Agree!!!!

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Gregorio Smith August 29, 2018 at 5:49 pm

There appears to be a class issue here. Those who use who as a relative pronoun are to be considered from another class from those who use that. The use of “That” to refer to a person is quite common among the blue collars. The use of “Who” is apparently used more by those who were present in the 4th grade when this was taught.

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