Q&A: Relative pronouns – Who vs That?

Each week, we chat about the quirks & anomalies of the English language. And there are many to choose from…

Q: Hi AWC, this week we have a question from Carolyn.
A: Carolyn? Who’s that?
Q: Precisely!
A: Huh?
Q: WHO and THAT! She was keen to find out about when you’d use WHO and when you’d use THAT in situations like “the woman who said” or “the athlete that runs”. She finds that people say “that” a lot, but believes “who” should be the technically correct option. Any thoughts?
A: Okay, well we’re talking about relative pronouns here (these are used to link a clause or phrase to a noun/pronoun) and there is a rule that works in most cases – “who” for people and “that” for objects.
Q: But I have definitely heard people say “the person THAT makes the biggest tower out of jelly wins” – i.e. “that” and not “who”…
A: First, where are you hanging out to hear such a sentence? Second, yes, while we recommend that you go with “who” for a person, often there are times when you can use either “who” or “that”.
Q: Oh great, another rule that’s made to be broken.
A: If it’s a plural or even someone that you don’t want to express familiarity with, then using “that” can work.
Q: Like just then – when you said “someone that you don’t want to express” instead of “someone who you don’t want to express”…?
A: Yes, that’s right – it can be a subtle distinction. If you’re naming someone though, “who” is the only way to go.
Q: Okay, so I do know that non-human things are “that”. But what about my dog?
A: Yes, this is where things again can get a little blurry.
Q: Things don’t usually get blurry for me until at least the third drink.
A: We’ll ignore that. There is a bit of a grey area with non-human living things – essentially, it’s left to you to choose if “who” or “that” feels more appropriate.
Q: So I have my puppy WHO I like to dress in sweaters and hats – but the cockroach THAT I just squished with my boot.
A: Yes, they’re good examples. The more human an animal seems, we’re more likely to use “who”.
Q: Here’s a better rule – if you have more pictures of your pet than people on your Instagram account, go with “who”. But inanimate objects, go with “that”.
A: Absolutely.
Q: And finally, what about the possessive form of inanimate objects? For example, while I might say “the fireman, whose hours are long”, what would replace “whose” in something non-human?
A: Nothing – you can use “whose” as the possessive form for both “who” and “that” because “that” doesn’t have its own one. So you’d say “the city, whose residents are all arsonists”.
Q: Wow, that’s a great tip – you’re on fire.
A: We blame the arsonists.
Q: And we got through this whole Q&A without a single reference to Doctor Who!
A: Almost.
Q: Oh, oops…

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