Grammar Bite: Who’s That?

by Erin Brenner on February 17, 2011

I read an article recently on Visual Thesaurus (subscription required) in which the authors, Simon Glickman and Julia Rubiner, state that when referring to a person, the writer should always use who and never that:

For instance, you wouldn’t say, “The copywriter that injured herself trying to dismount from her high horse was named Julia Rubiner”; you’d say, “The copywriter who injured herself trying to dismount from her high horse was named Julia Rubiner.

Often I agree with what Glickman and Rubiner say on Visual Thesaurus, but not this time. (I also didn’t agree with the main thrust of the article, whose vs. of which, but that’s another post). The authors don’t give any evidence that using that to represent a person is wrong, other than to say “the living are robbed of their humanity.” To be fair, this point was at the end of the article and was made as a quick aside. But maybe that’s worse, because a pet peeve is declared, with no explanation given as to why it’s wrong, and the users of this peeve are sentenced as “careless scribes” without a trial.

That’s one thing with pet peeves: they’re our pets. We’re enamored with them. We’re irrational about them, ignoring any evidence that they might not be as clear cut or as absolute as we think. Every writer, editor, and English instructor has them, including yours truly. When we write, we can exercise our pet peeves to our hearts’ content. When we instruct or edit, we owe it to others to examine our peeves in the light of rationality and not simply decry their use.

The other thing with our pet peeves? They’re often (though not always) wrong. And this one is no exception.

The Oxford English Dictionary (subscription required) defines that in part as:

The general relative pronoun, referring to any antecedent, and used without inflexion irrespective of gender, number, and case.

Introducing a clause defining or restricting the antecedent, and thus completing its sense. (The ordinary use: referring to persons or things.) Sometimes replaceable by who (of persons) or which (of things), but properly only in cases where no ambiguity results.

Oxford’s first reference of that in this sense is from about 825. That’s over a thousand years of use, if you’re keeping track.

Merriam-Webster Online and Webster’s New World College Dictionary also define that as representing a person or a thing. Merriam-Webster puts it succinctly: “In current usage that refers to persons or things… The notion that that should not be used to refer to persons is without foundation; such use is entirely standard.” *

Usage experts agree. Says Bryan Garner in his Modern American Usage, “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.” Patricia O’Conner asks in Woe Is I which sounds right, “The girl that married dear old dad” or “The girl who married dear old dad.” They both sound right, she says, because they both are right.

In Word Court, Barbara Wallraff tempers the argument by pointing out that:

This usage may in some contexts sound a bit crude, but it is not ungrammatical, and it can sometimes offer a writer a graceful way out, as in “Did she say it was a man or a book that she curled up with last night?”

So if you’re writing your masterpiece and you vigorously oppose using that to refer to a person, can you choose to solely use who? Absolutely. But if you’re writing for a client or your company, and He Who Writes the Checks insists that you allow that to represent a person, breathe a sigh of relief: doing so break any grammar rules.

Do you allow that to refer to a person? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

*The Merriam-Webster definition and link to it have been corrected to the fourth definition. Thanks to @bgzimmer for the help with that point.

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