According to a grammar book, it is incorrect to state "The company directors realized too late that the man that they had just brought in was unsuited to do the job." They claim it is better to state: "The company directors realized too late that the man whom they had just brought in was unsuited to do the job".

Why is using "that" wrong here, when Oxford Dictionaries claims that “that” can refer to objects and humans alike (per Tragicomic's answer to How to use “who” vs. “that”)?

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    I would simply say that the grammar book is wrong—about this sentence, and about the general principle that this judgement is based on. As the Oxford Dictionaries quote at the linked post says, "It is sometimes argued that, in relative clauses, that should be used for non-human references, while who should be used for human references...": that is, there are people who say that you should avoid using "that" with a human antecedent, but in reality this isn't actually a characteristic feature of educated usage.
    – herisson
    Nov 27, 2017 at 4:02
  • Do you know why the 'recommended' version not only has "whom" instead of "that", but it also omits the sequence "that the man"?
    – BillJ
    Nov 27, 2017 at 7:27
  • @BillJ I edited those words back in, because leaving them out looks like an error on the OP’s part to me. The sentence is ungrammatical without the phrase “that the man.” Nov 27, 2017 at 13:53

1 Answer 1


As I was taught in school, in British English "whom" is correct, and "that" is obviously wrong as indeed it should not be used for persons. In my experience people using "that" in internet forums tend to be rather poorly educated Americans, judging from vocabulary, sentence structure etc.; and neither does the Oxford Dictionary deny that avoiding the use of "that" for a person is a characteristic feature of educated usage, as user sumelic is inferring.

  • I downvoted because no one asked about Internet forums, the needless attack on speakers of American English, as well as a lack of evidence provided for your final assertion, which is rather poorly phrased anyway. Nov 27, 2017 at 6:23
  • I didn't downvote, because I haven't looked into the matter deeply enough to confirm my impressions, but I think you should edit this to add more than anecdotal evidence. @Azor-Ahai: "rather poorly educated Americans" is not necessarily an attack: it doesn't logically imply that the two traits go together, just that people who use "the man that" tend to have both traits.
    – herisson
    Nov 27, 2017 at 6:24
  • For example, the Google Ngram Viewer indicates approximately even use of "the man that I" and "the man whom I" since around 1990: books.google.com/ngrams/… It's possible that "the man that I" is more frequent in works by less educated writers, or that writing in general has become less formal in the past few decades...
    – herisson
    Nov 27, 2017 at 6:26
  • ...but I don't see a very strong argument for that in this answer. (Many people are taught incorrect rules in school.)
    – herisson
    Nov 27, 2017 at 6:28
  • Oh please, there is no need to take this personally. I did not attack anyone, much less needlessly. As I was clearly stating, it is only my personal observation and nothing else: the use of "that" in lieu of "whom" for persons seems to be common with rather poorly literate people, and obviously Americans as visible from their vocabulary and expressions, sentence structure etc. Is it possible to be more clear, while not trying to be offensive or appearing to attack anyone? I would to the contrary suggest trying to keep your equanimity in such situations like this here. Nov 27, 2017 at 6:29

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