Which of the following is correct?

  • There were 10 people that went to the store.
  • There were 10 people who went to the store.


Which of the following is correct?

  • There were 10 people that had brown hair.
  • There were 10 people who had brown hair.

3 Answers 3

  • There were 10 people who went to the store.
  • There were 10 people who had brown hair.

Who refers to people. That and which refer to groups or things. (grammarbook)

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    Of course, that is not entirely true. There are cases, like this: "That person is nice". You could never say "Who person is nice". So "that" does indeed also refer to people. Commented Aug 10, 2010 at 21:07
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    I voted you up, because I agreed with what you wrote. I also agree with what I wrote. I'm just skeptical that "that" should never be used in that context. For instance, Googling "people that went" returns 5 million results. "people who went" returns 28 million. So while "who" used as an adjective clause is much more common, "that" is also very common. Commented Aug 10, 2010 at 22:37
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    "The person that I have met last night."
    – avpaderno
    Commented Mar 10, 2011 at 20:00
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    -1 "Who refers to people. That and which refer to groups or things." Not always. Wish you were not so categorical, because there are many (kinds of) exceptions. (cf. other answers.)
    – Kris
    Commented Oct 23, 2012 at 8:00
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    This is not entirely so. Who only refers to people, but that refers to both people and objects. Indeed, that is the older relative pronoun for both people and objects.
    – Anonym
    Commented Mar 2, 2014 at 22:49

They are interchangeable.


1 a : the person, thing, or idea indicated, mentioned, or understood from the situation b : the time, action, or event specified c : the kind or thing specified as follows d : one or a group of the indicated kind

Beware of grammar books. They very often describe the authors' opinions on what grammar should be, rather than what grammar actually is.

Specifically, I would say that it is fine to use either "that" or "who", but "who" can only be used to refer to people, while "that" refers to things and people. One should favour the word "who", if they want to clarify that it is a person, and not a thing, that they are talking about.

Jean Yates says in her book, "The Ins and Outs of Prepositions":

An adjective clause can identify a noun. The clause comes right after the noun.
The man who(m) ...
The man that ....
The people who(m) ...
The people that ...

Furthermore, the "Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English" by Douglas Biber, Susan Conrad, and Geoffrey Leech says:

Three relative pronouns stand out as being particularly common in English: who, which, and that.

  • That and zero are the preferred choices in conversation, although relative clauses are generally rare in that register.
  • Fiction is similar to conversation in its preference for that.
  • In contrast, news shows a much stronger preference for which and who, and academic prose strongly prefers which.

So again, I say, be wary of any single grammar book as being 100% correct. They never are.

  • While I am not saying you are wrong (I am just a noob here), I really struggle with your merriam-webster entry. The examples going with 1a, 1b, 1c and 1d (or any other examples for "that") have little to do with the OP's examples.
    – VonC
    Commented Aug 10, 2010 at 21:23
  • It seems that many grammar "rules" are subjective. I will forever use the solution proposed by VonC because it is easy to remember and never wrong (until somebody proves it wrong here). I am, after all, just a noob here too. Commented Aug 10, 2010 at 22:18
  • @VonC - just a noob! Ha! Reading everything you have written here only proves that you have an excellent grasp of the English language. I will update my post to include more references. Commented Aug 10, 2010 at 22:40
  • Now that is a much more detailed answer :) +1. As Bryan says, I will keep the "simple rule" I mentioned before, but I realize now it is by no means an absolute one.
    – VonC
    Commented Aug 11, 2010 at 4:25
  • Forcing me to do research, hmph! :P Yes, I really should back up what I say with supporting references more often. Commented Aug 11, 2010 at 6:51

It's worth noting that the term "who" with a preceding comma often has a different meaning from "that", and the latter term would not substitute. Consider:

  1. The six friends, who had gone to school together, went to the beach.
  2. The six friends that had gone to school together went to the beach.

In the first sentence, it is assumed that the reader would know, even before reading the italicized portion of the text, what the six friends the author was referring to, but not that they had gone to school together. In the second sentence, it is assumed that the reader would know that six friends had gone to school together, but not that the author was writing about those people in particular.

When discussing inanimate objects, the word "who" in the first usage above would be replaced with "which". Replacing the word "that" in the second usage with "who" would be reasonably common usage when discussing people, but comparable replacement with "which" would be less common, especially when the subordinate clause modifies the subject of a sentence. "The six machines which weren't working this morning have been repaired" would read slightly less naturally than "The six machines that weren't working this morning...", though "I have fixed the six machines which weren't working this morning" would be fine.

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    It’s a superstition that which cannot be used in such cases. As the authors of ‘The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language’ write, ‘Integrated wh relatives with non-personal heads have been occurring in impeccable English for about 400 years.’ Commented Oct 23, 2012 at 7:41
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    @BarrieEngland: There is certainly historical precedent for the use of "which" to refer to people and also in cases where it identifies rather than describes things; I think such usage is more common when the modified noun is the object rather than the subject of the enclosing sentence. I have revised my answer; what do you think of it?
    – supercat
    Commented Oct 23, 2012 at 15:06
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    @BarrieEngland: My personal philosophy is that it is in most contexts more important that writing be clearly understood at first glance than that it follow "rules". Use of "which" in place of "that" feels right in some contexts, but not others, but I don't think "that" feels wrong in situations where it introduces a clause that identifies the things referred to by a noun. I would posit that if a person lacks a sense of when English speakers would or would not find that "which" feels natural in an identifying clause, such a person could safely use "that" and be understood.
    – supercat
    Commented Oct 23, 2012 at 15:23

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