A non-native speaker is asking ...

Which should you use, 'which' or 'that,' in the following statement? Since this is mainly talking about the types of persons (within 'her'), you might use 'that,' but would you also use 'who'?

Sam was praising the industrious worker who/that she was when she was in the office, not the lazy housewife who/that she was when she was at home.

  • Possible duplicate of How to use: who/that.
    – RegDwigнt
    Jul 3, 2011 at 21:15
  • 1
    @RegDwight: I'm sure this addresses a different question to the one answered in your link, which only covers cases where one of "who" and "that" needs to be present. In this case I think neither should be, so it's a different context entirely. Jul 4, 2011 at 0:17

3 Answers 3


"That" sounds better to my native English ears, but what I would opt for is no "who" or "that" at all.

Sam was praising the industrious worker she was when she was in the office, not the lazy housewife she was when she was at home.

Edit: to make use of a commenter's astute observation, removing the unnecessary and clunky "when she was", the more fluent sentence would run as follows:

Sam was praising the industrious worker she was in the office, not the lazy housewife she was at home.

  • Thanks, drm65. Would 'who' sound unnatural?
    – Sssamy
    Jul 3, 2011 at 8:51
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    @Sssamy: I agree with drm65 that "who" sounds a little bit awkward. I can't quite put my finger on why, but using "that" (or nothing at all, as drm65 suggests) definitely sounds better.
    – psmears
    Jul 3, 2011 at 9:58
  • @Sssamy Yes. "Who" is never used in such a context, that I've ever heard.
    – Daniel
    Jul 3, 2011 at 13:03
  • Weird. There's no doubt in my mind that 'who' doesn't work here. And 'that' appears to be at the very least superfluous. I think it's to do with the grammatical role played by 'that' here - introducing further details about the already-identified industrious worker, rather than identifying which particular industrious worker is being spoken of. I don't know how to make that distinction more precisely. Jul 3, 2011 at 23:53
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    This seems MUCH less awkward to me: Sam was praising the industrious worker she was in the office, not the lazy housewife she was at home.
    – ErikE
    Jul 4, 2011 at 18:28

I already upvoted drm65's answer, but I think I'm going to go out on a limb and say that the only reasonable form is to use neither at all.

It just so happens that because the sentence structure is relatively complex, we can be bamboozled into accepting a superfluous that (though probably never a who). Try simplifying it a bit...

Sam liked the whore [that?] she was in the bedroom, not the cook [[that?] she was] in the kitchen.

Few would like that that, though it is grammatically valid. Very few would accept who. See this related question.

  • 1
    I don't see what's wrong with that here, as well (although I agree that nothing is slightly better). Definitely not who, though. Jul 4, 2011 at 1:13
  • @Peter Shor: I guess that makes you one of the few! Seriously, I think I really meant (and should have said) Few would like 'that' better than nothing. Jul 4, 2011 at 1:25
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    Sorry, but if you're going to claim that the only correct form is neither, I'm going to vigorously disagree. You get neither only by ellipsis from that.
    – user1579
    Jul 5, 2011 at 0:11
  • @Rhodri: Well of course I agree I'm eliding that. It's no secret - I wrote it in to prove the point. My example sentence is structurally identical to OP's, only simplified to clarify the issue. Are you going to say you'd prefer who in mine? Or that you think it's better if I do include that? Jul 5, 2011 at 0:24
  • I'm saying that "the only correct form" is an incorrect statement.
    – user1579
    Jul 5, 2011 at 0:29

The answer to this is "who." Use "who" for people, "that" for inanimate objects or nouns and proper nouns.

This is an area of slight contention. Fowler, Gowers and others argue forcefully for "who" in this type of instance, others maintain that a human referent can take "that," so do be mindful of the debate.

Careful writers, expert users and editors will prefer "who" with respect to individuals.

  • Gotta disagree. Your who/that distinction applies to usages where you must use one or the other. In this case you don't actually need either, and I agree with @drm65 that 'neither' is the best choice. Jul 3, 2011 at 23:58

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