Do You Use “Who” or “That” to Refer to People?

When I talked about the rules of writing to a group of professional communicators, the first question they raised was this: Is it acceptable to use both who and that to refer to people, or is only who correct?

Before I share my response, consider the question. Which word would you use in the sentences below? 

  1. We need to hire someone who/that speaks Japanese. 
  2. A person who/that doesn't rely on public transportation may not support transit subsidies. 
  3. I'm looking for the man who/that turned in the tickets. 

Did you choose who or that? Or did your answer vary depending on the sentence? 

Normally I would give you my answers now, but the answer for every example is this: It depends on which style manual you use. 

 

The Chicago Manual of Style recommends who for people; that for a person, animal, or thing. 

Chicago's examples: 

  • Where is the man who spoke?
  • Any building that is taller must be outside the state.

 

The Associated Press Stylebook recommends this approach: Use who to refer to "human beings and to animals with a name"; use that to refer to "inanimate objects and to animals without a name." 

Examples: 

  • We need a designer who understands us. 
  • It was Pixie who dug up the glove. 
  • The raccoon that startled me scared the neighbors too. 


Garner’s Modern English Usage
 supports both who and that to refer to people. Under the entry for who/whom, it says, "Who is the relative pronoun for human beings." But under the entry for that, Garner defends its use: "'People that' has always been good English, and it's a silly fetish to insist that who is the only relative pronoun that can refer to humans." 

Garner's examples: 

  • the people that were present  
  • the people who were present 

Garner adds that editors tend to prefer who. 

 

Microsoft Manual of Style takes an approach similar to Garner's, saying, "Although there is no linguistic basis for not using that to refer to people . . . it is considered more polite to use who instead of that in references to people.” 

Microsoft's example: 

  • For experienced users who want to alter the standard configuration . . .

 

The Gregg Reference Manual gives the most complex advice after noting that both who and that are used to refer to people. Gregg states: "Select who when the individual person or the individuality of a group is meant, that when a class or type is meant."

Example referring to an individual person: 

  • She is the only member who welcomed me. 

Example referring to a class or type: 

  • A candidate that has plenty of money can stay in the race longer. 

 

Being an animal lover with an English spring spaniel whose name is Katy, I'm going to follow The AP Stylebook and use who for all references to people and animals with names. 

Which style do you follow?

Thanks to Grammarly for flagging typos, especially one that almost caught me in an incorrect verb. Try it

Lynn
Syntax Training

9 COMMENTS

  1. Fowler covers it. As do Bremner and Garner. But explore other options, such as a candidate with plenty of money. And make those options part of your natural speech pattern. Most people will find it probably already is. The assertion in the Microsoft manual has no basis.

  2. Hello Paul,

    Thanks for commenting. I agree that simplifying sentence structures makes sense. In the items 1, 2, and 3 that I gave as examples, I believe the “who” clauses are necessary. At other times, like the example you noted, it’s easy to streamline.

    Microsoft and Garner essentially agree, and my check of Fowler indicates support for Microsoft’s assertion too. I’m not sure what your final sentence is based on.

    Lynn

  3. Hello Lynn,
    We need to use according to the style manual applied. If we aren’t sure what style is being used, what to use?

    Also, is there’s some difference in their use in US and UK English?
    If so, kindly clarify.

    Best,
    KR

  4. Hi Bart,

    Thanks for the article. My favorite quote was this one by Rebecca Gowers: “The more arbitrary their dislike of a given word, the more honour they are likely to invest in insisting that it is incorrect.”

    I am always surprised at how strongly people react to words and punctuation they consider wrong.

    Lynn

  5. Hi KR,

    It helps to know which style a document should follow. But when you don’t know, choose based on the most common style. As you can see from my information above, you can’t go wrong using “who” for people.

    I am not an expert on British English. But “Garner’s Modern English Usage” frequently covers both British and American English in his discussions.

    Lynn

  6. That quote in the comments made me laugh, because it sounds exactly like the reason I clicked on the article. Almost every post I see, even headline lately, uses “that” where I would use “who,” so I looked it up to prove they are all incorrect. Ha! Ha! Feeling sheepish now.

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