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Here's a sentence I randomly thought of:

The number of people [who/that] don't give way to buses is staggering.

This sentence got me thinking about grammar and sentence structure and thus prompted this question. There are two parts to my question, which somewhat go together.

The first part is this: is "who" or "that" correct? I was fairly sure of "who", but then I thought, maybe it depends on how the first part of the sentence is parsed. Again, I'm fairly sure that #1 is correct; if it is, I'd also like to know whether #2 is plausible.

  1. (The number of) people who...

In #1, people are the focus, so "who" is used.

  1. The number (of people) that...

In #2, the number is the focus, so "that" is used (because the number is a concept).

This leads me to the second part of the question. What is the structure of the sentence? Below is what I think it is:

[The number of people] subject who [don't] verb [give way to] verb [buses] object [is staggering] phrase

(Is this also a clause on its own? Or is it a clause + a phrase?)

Now, if my breakdown of the sentence is correct, and the number of people is a compound subject, does that mean that (1) the first part of this question is moot, and (2) The number of people that doesn't is correct, despite linguistic norms?

In summary:

  • Is "who" or "that" correct? Why?
  • Have I analysed the sentence correctly?
  • Is the number of people a compound subject? If so, why don't we say the number of people that doesn't?
  • Is the entire sentence a clause, a clause + a phrase, or multiple clauses?
  • I'm not sure but is "don't" in that sentence really acting as a verb? Or is it an auxiliary verb, or qualifier, or something? Compare the similarly-structured sentence "I do run [to the shop]", is this a sentence with one verb or two. – Stilez Jul 25 '17 at 8:06
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I think the reason for your confusion is twofold - one is that your parsing of the sentence is incorrect, the second is a confusion over the way that "that" may be used.

To address the first issue - the meaning of the sentence is the number is staggering; the prepositional phrase "of people [who/that] don't give way to buses" is there to answer the question which number. Therefore, at the most basic level, the sentence can be broken up into:

[The number of people [who/that] don't give way to buses] (subject) is (linking verb) staggering (subject complement).

The subject contains a prepositional phrase that is also a restrictive relative clause people who/that don't give way to buses. Therefore, the phrase "don't give way to buses" modifies people, not number or number of people.

Now that we have worked this out, we can answer whether "who" or "that" can be used. As it is a restrictive relative clause that refers to people in an abstract way, you can use either that or who (although there are some who will argue that it is much better/only appropriate to use who, in practice both are used). Answers to this related question already give some explanation, so I will not expand further on it here.


For those interested, this Oxford Dictionaries blog post and this Grammar Girl article discuss the usage of who vs that.

  • +1 Thank you for your answer and helping me to see where I went wrong. Analysing sentence structure is a skill I'm yet to master. For some reason I had it stuck in my head that clause = S+V+O. However, I take it that the sentence is one clause? Also, is it possible to further break down the subject, or is it just one unit? – Dog Lover Jul 25 '17 at 11:42
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    @DogLover It depends what you mean by "one clause". The sentence contains one main clause that can't easily be split up into two or more sentences, but the subject is a compound one. You can therefore break down the subject further, but syntactically the whole phrase forms the subject (I think). I guess you could argue that the number is the "real" subject and of people who don't give way to buses is a prepositional phrase that can be further broken down etc etc... But as "the number" is insufficient on its own to identify the subject, I would say that the whole phrase is the subject. – SteveES Jul 25 '17 at 12:32
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After speaking to a few other people, we established the sentence structure thus:

enter image description here

The cause of the confusion was the presence of an embedded clause, making the sentence a complex sentence with an independent and dependent clause.

However, the question still stands: Is it "who" or "that" and why?

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"Who" modifies persons. "That" pertains to an inanimate object.

Examples: People who walk; buildings that are made of steel.

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In your statement, "The number of people [who/that] don't give way to buses is staggering," "number of people" refers to people only, and includes no objects [inanimate] or subjects [topics, etc.]

Therefore,it's perfectly okay to use either "who" or "that."

Why?

Try this. The rules are very clear:

"Who" is an interrogative pronoun. [Since it's interrogative, meaning you can ask humans a question. It also means you can't ask a tree a question. You can't question your car, or an elephant. The subject of Mathematics can't be questioned, either. With anything other than humans, "who" cannot be used.]

“Who” should be used only when referring to people.
“That” can be used for referring to people and objects/subjects.

Therefore, you can't use "who" for objects/subjects.

Incorrect: The tractor who sits in my garage is broke. [It's an object/subject vs. a person so cannot use "who."

Incorrect: Ralph, and a shotgun, who were left in my car overnight are gone now. (Even though Ralph is human, includes other than human inanimate object. "Who" cannot be used. Use that.)

Correct: The person who threw the ball at the window lives here. Correct: The person that threw the ball at the window lives here.

Ref: Little Brown Handbook, 11th Ed. Pg.537-41; 899, Pearson Education 2010. Book.

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