When referring to a person, why would anyone use "that" instead of "who"?

For example: "The musician that won the award is very creative." instead of: "The musician who won the award is very creative."

To me, using "that" in this case sounds like saying: "It won the award", which sounds somewhat disrespectful. What am I missing?

  • 6
    As a subordinator, that can refer to any entity, animate or inanimate. It has no closer affinity to things than to humans. Aug 18, 2019 at 16:32
  • 2
    That's right. The demonstrative pronoun that is neuter when used alone, but the word that used in relative clauses is not a pronoun. It's a complementizer and it can be used instead of a relative pronoun -- any relative pronoun: who, which, where, when, why, even how, which can't be used as a relative pronoun, though that can). Aug 18, 2019 at 17:54

2 Answers 2


In Jacobean England, the choice of that — and occasionally even which — with a personal antecedent seems merely a stylistic one, as a sampling from the first book of the King James Bible demonstrates:

for common nouns:

And in the fourteenth year came Chedorlaomer, and the kings that were with him… Gen 14.2
And they smote the men that were at the door of the house with blindness, both small and great… Gen 19.2
And Abraham called the name of his son that was born unto him, whom Sarah bare to him, Isaac. — Gen 21.1
Let me now leave with thee some of the folk that are with me. — Gen 33.5
…all the prisoners that were in the prison; 39.14
And he asked Pharaoh's officers that were with him… 40.2
All the souls that came with Jacob into Egypt, which came out of his loins, 46.2

for the epithet substituting for the Tetragrammaton, the four-consonant divine name:

…I am the LORD that brought thee out of Ur of the Chaldees… Gen 15.2
The LORD God of heaven, which took me from my father's house, … , and which spake unto me, and that sware unto me, saying, Unto thy seed will I give this land … — Gen 24.4

for pronouns, personal and otherwise:

And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee… — Gen 12.3
So now it was not you that sent me hither, but God. — Gen 45.3

cursed be every one that curseth thee, and blessed be he that blesseth thee. — Gen 27.10
We cannot do this thing, to give our sister to one that is uncircumcised;… — Gen 34.2
Then Joseph could not refrain himself before all them that stood by him… — Gen 45.2
And Joseph returned into Egypt, he, and his brethren, and all that went up with him to bury his father… Gen 50.1

Google Books queries show, however, that since roughly 1900 there has been an increasing preference for who. This is especially marked for indefinite pronouns:

someone, everyone, anyone, no one:

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somebody, anybody, nobody:

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The preference is also clear for common nouns such as doctor, student, officer:

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or man, woman, child:

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In contrast, with nouns denoting groups of people such as team, jury or committee, that is preferred:

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A preference, however strong, may or may not be distilled into a grammar rule, though there are any number of grammar pundits online who rail against personal that and a few who defend it. At this point, I would recommend avoiding that with indefinite pronouns and choose judiciously in other contexts.


There is a subtle difference in meaning.

That - is more general, about ‘musicians in general’.

Who - is more personal - about ‘that particular musician’.

Use ‘that’ (in this example) when you want to go on to talk about musicians.

Use ‘who’ (in this example) when you want to go on to talk about this particular musician.


Generalthat musician...’ - The musician that won the award is very creative. He is one of a group of musicians that appeared in the Venice Biennale.

Specific ‘the musician who...’ - The musician who won the award is very creative. He often uses a special guitar with dingly bells fixed on it and sings in a high-pitched monotone.

The lack of understanding of this subtlety, has led to the idea that ‘that is for things and who is for people’, which is not the case.


  • the linked page does not directly support your argument. It does dennounce the strict animate/inanimate distinction by example of the cat, who or the company, who, and nothing much more. But it's loaded with adds making up more than half its content, so I choose to remove the link. Thanks for your attention. This comment may be deleted.
    – vectory
    Aug 24, 2019 at 13:23

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