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, 2016 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, 2016 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? Dec 18, 2016 at 19:22

4 Answers 4


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".


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.



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.


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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