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I often get confused when trying to use who vs that.

Some examples that often confuse me:

That

The person that went to the store.

The people that went shopping.

The persons that went shopping.

The group that went shopping.

Who

The person who went to the store.

The people who go shopping.

Please explain when to use either for plural subjects and singular subjects. Animate and inanimate objects as well.

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I agree that it's grating to hear people referenced with a "that." It is depersonalizing, while who is a manifestation of human solidarity. If we must scrub our prose of cuss-words (something I've come somewhat reluctantly to support) referencing people with a who makes a good counter-rule. In my own work, I sort of make "that" a word to avoid. One good way around the overall awkwardness of, "Doctors and Hospitals who/that accept Medicare patients" is the gerund, "Doctors and hospitals accepting Medicare patients." As for the myriad precedents in which respected authors have used a "that."if t –  user53699 Oct 8 '13 at 16:27
    
The, "Accepting Medicare patients..." above should have been called a gerundIVE, because it's the key to a phrase that functions as an adjectIVE. I know some real grammarians are looking at this forum, and wanted to fix my nomenclature before anyone called me on it! The only real rule 'bout optimum expression is, "It depends on the situation." Part of the situation is available vocabulary. Another way around would be, "Providers who..." –  user53699 Oct 8 '13 at 21:36
    
All the rules are 'made up'. It's following them that keeps the language meaningful. –  user66248 Feb 18 at 14:06
    
One rule I've always been taught (and MS Word seems to reinforce this whenever I forget) is that phrases beginning with "who" tend to be dependent clauses that require a comma before and after, whereas with "that" phrases, you can just go right into it without a comma for pause. –  TylerH Feb 18 at 14:18

4 Answers 4

up vote 7 down vote accepted

It is usually said that who is used for people (and sometimes animals) while that is used to refer to objects.

In actual usage, though, both who and that can be used to refer to persons, sometimes to animals, and sometimes to entities that consist of people.

  • The dog who/that chewed the bone chased the cat.
  • The person who/that stole my purse used all my credit cards.
  • The group who/that went shopping was mugged.

That, not who, is used to refer to objects.

  • The house that Jack built is falling down.

Here's what Oxford Dictionaries Online says:

It is sometimes argued that, in relative clauses, that should be used for non-human references, while who should be used for human references: a house that overlooks the park but the woman who lives next door. In practice, while it is true to say that who is restricted to human references, the function of that is flexible. It has been used for human and non-human references since at least the 11th century, and is invaluable where both a person and a thing is being referred to, as in a person or thing that is believed to bring bad luck.

For more examples of actual usage, here's a link to Merriam Webster's Dictionary of English usage (see pages 895 and 896).

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There isn't any difference for plural and singular subjects; the difference is for people and non-people. Saying who is personifying, saying that or which is objectifying.

Presumably one should always say who when speaking of a human being, or other entity known to be of roughly equivalent or higher intelligence, and that or which when speaking of an inanimate object. Animals and other beings thought to be of below-human cognitive capacity are something of a gray area; I'd say choose your usage according to what sort of tone you want to convey.

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What do you mean by gray area? There is no definite rule? –  O.O Feb 3 '11 at 15:37
    
@subt13: Yes. I believe one can get away with either usage in reference to animals, and the choice one makes will affect the tone of the work. –  chaos Feb 3 '11 at 15:38
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That is used instead of who, whom, and which; there is not rule in English grammar that says that should not be used for persons. In fact, the dictionary reports you can replace who with that. –  kiamlaluno Feb 3 '11 at 16:02
    
@kiamlaluno: "The dictionary"? Surely you know there is no singular "the dictionary". For a contrary viewpoint to whatever work you're referring to, try grammarbook.com/grammar/whoVwhVt.asp. –  chaos Feb 3 '11 at 16:05
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The New Oxford American Dictionary and dictionary.com report what I wrote. In the Corpus of Contemporary English you can find sentences like Remember the person that was that clever to do that? –  kiamlaluno Feb 3 '11 at 17:57

The relative pronoun "that" used in reference to a person or to people has been extant since at the 11th century (I lack proper citation for this date, but there are ample instances throughout 13th and 14th century literature - notably in Chaucer) but is typically only employed when a pronoun is used to combine both a person or people and a thing or things simultaneously.

Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition and American Heritage Dictionary both note the interchangeability of "who" and "that" with either being acceptable when referring to a person or to people, however.

(See citations listed with this article.)

According to GrammarBook, there are three basic rules:

  1. Who refers to people. That and which refer to groups or things.
  2. That introduces essential clauses while which introduces nonessential clauses.
  3. If this, that, these, or those has already introduced an essential clause, you may use which to introduce the next clause, whether it is essential or nonessential.

These are the rules as were drilled into my head by both my family and throughout my education. As a matter of personal preference, I would like to add that I find the casual use of that in reference to a person or people to be revealing. To equate someone to a thing is to depersonalize - even when one is referring to one's self.

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I'm not sure I understand why people think that "that" means "thing". After all, we happily say things like "that man" (we have no choice, in fact!). It seems like a silly rule someone in the 19th century came up with to create some parallel to the gender-based system in Latin. Additionally, "that" probably isn't even a pronoun in this construction, but a complementizer of the same type seen in statements like "I believe that..." and "he said that...". –  siride May 30 '13 at 3:12

When I was at the U of Oregon in the 1970s studying journalism, the AP style guide required the word "who" when referring to people and "that" when referring to anything non human, whether an inanimate carbon rod, or a dog. It grates on my ears to hear so many people use "that" when referring to a person. I agree that it shows the increasing depersonalization of society. It seems that these days, people are just objects, not human beings, and the language is reflecting that.

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Oh, so we, the Dutch-speakers, have always lived in a depersonalised society. :P –  DoubtingDoubt May 30 '13 at 0:02
    
There's nothing depersonalizing about "that", any more than "that man" is depersonalizing. Someone made up a rule that "who" goes with people and "that" doesn't, which had no basis in the history of the language or its syntax, and now we have people like you trying to make commentary about a whole society based on the words used in relative clause. Get a grip! –  siride May 30 '13 at 3:14

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