"After hearing that Ramin’s father was in the shah’s secret police who were responsible for killing millions..."

I thought the word would be "who" because police are people, but MS Word corrects is as "that". I was wondering why "that" is the correct modifier?

  • 5
    MS Word doesn't understand grammar; "who" is correct. – Peter Shor Aug 27 '14 at 16:46
  • See this on English Language Learners. – StoneyB on hiatus Aug 27 '14 at 16:52
  • 3
    Either who or that is correct in a restrictive relative clause; however, this may not be a restrictive clause, since interpreting it restrictively presupposes there were several groups of shah's secret police, and the man was a member of the particular shah's secret police group that were responsible for the killing. This may be true, for all I know, but there is no comma after police. Putting a comma there would convert it to a non-restrictive relative, where who is correct but that is not allowed. – John Lawler Aug 27 '14 at 17:13
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    There is absolutely no reason or excuse for anyone to use a grammar checker. None of them work. Microsoft Word does not know the first thing about English grammar. Conversely, you had a firm grasp of English grammar long before you even knew the words "grammar" or "Microsoft" existed. This dumb moron of a tool should be your slave, not the other way round. I wonder why people keep using it against their own best judgment. It just wasted a considerable chunk of your precious lifetime with this question alone. It eats your life away. – RegDwigнt Aug 27 '14 at 23:26

When an entity (in this case a police force or police unit) can be viewed either as the sum of its human components or as an institutional and in some sense inhuman entity, the choice between who and that/which may serve to reflect the author's preferred view. So if you see the police as humans collectively responsible for many deaths, feel free to overrule Word and use who:

After hearing that Ramin’s father was a member of the shah’s secret police, who were responsible for killing millions, ...

On the other hand, if you want to emphasize the monolithic, institutional aspect of the shah's secret police, you can treat "secret police" as a thing:

After hearing that Ramin’s father was a member of SAVAK, the shah’s secret police, which was responsible for killing millions, ...

Either way, I wouldn't use that in the construction you present, because (as far as I know) SAVAK was the shah's only secret police organization—and if that's the case, you don't need to introduce a restrictive clause (signaled by that) to distinguish SAVAK from groupings of the shah's secret police that weren't responsible for killing millions.


I think 'who' and 'that' are interchangeable in this case. It sometimes depends on a style you follow.


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