I am curious at the ubiquitous use of "that"--rather than "who," or "whom"--when referring to a person. Wondering how it happened that people became equated with objects.
Some magazines still use "who" and "whom," but I have read "that" many times in print and almost always hear it used in everyday conversation.

  • Some examples, please!! – Hot Licks Dec 2 '16 at 0:36
  • You can search "relative pronoun that" and read when it can replace who/whom/which and when it can't. Please include your own research when asking a question here. Good luck. – user140086 Dec 2 '16 at 7:53
  • The point clearly stated in both title and question was to ask how “that” could reasonably be substituted for “who” or “whom” when referring to people, as opposed to things. I thought JBright was very clearly asking specifically why anyone even accepted, let alone wanted to use “the man who came to dinner…”. “The monster that came to dinner…” would show a correct use of “that”; “the man who came to dinner…” the correct term for a man. How is any of the rest, bar AnderssonPublishing’s support for JBright, relevant, please? – Robbie Goodwin Dec 18 '16 at 19:22

There is a fairly widespread analysis according to which "that" in restrictive relative clauses is not a relative pronoun, but is rather a clause introducer. See, for instance McCawley The Syntactic Phenomena of English. In this case, use of "that" rather than a wh-pronoun has nothing to do with somehow objectifying people.

Elsewhere, "that" introduces subordinate clauses -- in noun complements, such as "the fact that he disappeared", and in verb complements, such as "know that he disappeared". And unlike a real relative pronoun, "that" in a relative clause always comes at the beginning of the clause -- compare "the book about which he talked" with *"the book about that he talked".

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That as a pronoun is an old usage that dates back to Old English:

  • Old English þæt, "that, so that, after that," neuter singular demonstrative pronoun ("A Man's a Man for a' that"), relative pronoun ("O thou that hearest prayer").....

  • From Proto-Germanic *that, from PIE *tod-, extended form of demonstrative pronominal base -to-. With the breakdown of the grammatical gender system, it came to be used in Middle English and Modern English for all genders.


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The that you refer to is apparently the that of relative clauses, which alternates with who/which

  • the man [that/who came to dinner] (either that or wh- is required for a subject pronoun)
  • the car [(that/which) he came in] (that and wh- are optional as non-subjects)

This that is not a demonstrative pronoun, and does not refer to a neuter noun; it's a complementizer that introduces a tensed subordinate clause, and it's used in English
also to mark subject and object complement clauses:

  • [That he has never seen that before] surprises her (that is required for a subject clause)
  • I think [(that) he has never seen that before] (that is optional for non-subjects)

That used to appear even with tensed adverb clauses, and still does in some dialects, so that some people say

  • before that we set up the tent

instead of

  • before we set up the tent

So you don't need to worry so much about that. There's nothing wrong with that that.

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I always fix this when I run across it in editing jobs. I'm with you, JBright, there is a difference and we should use precision in language. I don't think a horse is a who and I don't think a woman is a that.

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