I came across this SAT Question of the Day:

Unbelievable as it may seem, many individuals that fought in the American Revolution were still alive in 1839, the year the world was introduced to photography. (choose the error - the 'answer' is in bold)

It noted that the reason "that fought" is wrong is that 'The relative pronoun “that” may not be used to refer to people (“individuals”) and should be replaced with the relative pronoun “who.”'

I had thought that the word "that" could refer to both people and objects (while which was reserved for objects and who reserved for people). Am I wrong?

  • 7
    You're wrong according to the SAT, which is all that matters when you take the test. :)
    – user13141
    Commented Nov 2, 2011 at 15:33
  • 4
    I agree with "onomatomaniak". But what you know about "that" referring to people is correct, no matter what the SAT says.
    – Irene
    Commented Nov 2, 2011 at 15:37

8 Answers 8


Google ngrams shows "people who" being twice as common as "people that" around 1820, and increasing ever since while "people that" stays flat. "The man who/that" and "The person who/that" show similar patterns.

So, "who" is certainly more common than "that" in reference to people, and certainly there are authorities who say "that" is wrong, as you have seen.

They're welcome to. I will carry on speaking my own language and ignore "authorities" who have the temerity to tell me I am incompetent at it.

Edit: and do they seriously think there's something wrong with "Who is it that ... "?

  • 2
    Don't you mean "...ignore 'authorities' that have..."? ;D
    – dx_over_dt
    Commented Jul 18, 2020 at 16:04

The NOAD has the following definition for that:

(plural that) [relative pronoun] used to introduce a defining or restrictive clause, especially one essential to identification.

  • instead of which, who, or whom: the book that I've just written.
  • instead of when after an expression of time: the year that Anna was born.

The Merriam-Webster's Collegiate has the following note about the usage of that:

That, which, who: In current usage that refers to persons or things, which chiefly to things and rarely to subhuman entities, who chiefly to persons and sometimes to animals. The notation that that should not be used to refer to persons is without foundation; such use is entirely standard.


I can speak only for British English, where that may have a human antecedent when it introduces an integrated relative clause (also known as a defining relative clause or a restrictive relative clause).


Good writers, who presumably knew what they were doing, have been using that to refer to people for as long as the relative pronoun that has been in the language. It's been used by Caxton, Shakespeare, Service, Franklin,

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage calls the notion that that may not refer to people "unfounded". Their conclusion:

In current usage, that refers to persons or things, which chiefly to things and rarely to subhuman entities, who chiefly to persons and sometimes to animals.

  • This answer is distressing. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage agrees with my opinion. I must be getting soft in my old age. Commented Dec 13, 2013 at 22:57

Google Ngrams seems to show that people are quite reluctant to use that to refer to people as the subject of a relative clause, but have no problem using that to refer to people as the object of a relative clause. This is a distinction which doesn't seem to be mentioned in grammar books, and could have confused the test's creator.

Ngram for people I know, people who take, etc.

The two highest lines in this graph are "people I know" and "people who take", and "people that I know" is a distant third, with both "people that take" and "people who(m) I know" much rarer. The phrase "people that take" occurs at less than 1/50 the frequency of the phrase "people who take". So that is certainly grammatical referring to people as the object of a relatie clause, but some people may perceive it as ungrammatical for the subject of a relative clause.

This also seems to be a relatively new development in English grammar, happening in the last century or so.


In any sort of writing, the College Board is correct. You should use "who" to refer to humans and "that" to refer to non-humans.

However, in colloquial speech, I often hear (and sometimes myself say) "that" instead of "who." Such as, "Hey! There goes the man that stole my wallet!" Or, confer with the once-popular show tune, "The Man that Got Away".

  • 2
    Confer with a show tune? Are you in the habit of holding conversations with songs?
    – Marthaª
    Commented Nov 2, 2011 at 17:00
  • 1
    @Martha: What? You've never argued with a voice on the radio?
    – Jay
    Commented Nov 2, 2011 at 17:55
  • 2
    A -1 to this comment. A number of essays have recently been published on this question, and the usage experts concur: "that" has been used with people throughout history, and by our best writers. What the usage guides recommend, actually, is that "who" should be preferred with respect to persons. But use of "that" isn't wrong, per se. To the OP: All that matters in this case is what the SAT people want.
    – The Raven
    Commented Nov 2, 2011 at 19:54

As a reflexive pronoun, I would certainly use "who" for people. You wouldn't say, "The man that is wearing a read hat ...", you should say, "The man who is wearing a read hat ..."

But as others have noted, it is not uncommon, and I'd be hard pressed to give a logical reason why there's anything wrong with it.

As an adjective it makes perfect sense. "That man over there stole my watch." You wouldn't say "Who man over there ..."

  • 1
    "who" and "that" are not reflexive pronouns, they are relative pronouns. "myself", "yourself" etc are reflexive pronouns.
    – Irene
    Commented Nov 2, 2011 at 19:37
  • Sorry, slip of the keyboard.
    – Jay
    Commented Nov 3, 2011 at 5:30

To my knowledge, collegeboard is in fact right. 'that' is a relative pronoun, which is to say in relative clauses, 'that' is reserved for nonhuman references while 'who' is used for human references.

  • 1
    I don't follow the logic. As I was recently led to understand on this very site, "that" is not in fact a relative pronoun but a complementiser, (See Aaron's comments on my reply to english.stackexchange.com/questions/17143/…) but it cannot occur with a RP: at least one of them must be deleted. Even if it were a RP, that says nothing about whether or not it can have a human reference.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Nov 2, 2011 at 17:05
  • In the ‘Oxford Modern English Grammar’, Bas Aarts analyses 'that' as a subordinating conjunction, and not as a relative pronoun, on the grounds that it cannot function as the complement of a preposition. Commented Nov 2, 2011 at 17:41
  • @dragoncharmer: 'Reserved' by who or what? Who is it that has reserved 'that'? (And do you really think I should say "Who is it who has reserved..") Commented Nov 3, 2011 at 0:11
  • @DavidSchwartz Since you asked, and not to be irritating or gratuitous, I think you should say 'Reserved' by whom or what? Also, instead of "Who is it that has reserved that", I would suggest "Who reserved that?" or "Who reserved it?" Commented Nov 18, 2011 at 19:01

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