Grammar Tips: Who vs. That
  • 2-minute read
  • 5th December 2022

Grammar Tips: Who vs. That

If you’re sometimes unsure whether to use “who” or “that” in a sentence, you’re not alone. Is it “the person that was kind” or “the person who was kind”? Since these two relative pronouns are often used incorrectly in speech, it’s easy to mix them up in writing. In this post, we’ll offer some simple guidelines for when to use who vs. that and cover a few exceptions as well.

Relative Pronouns

Who and that, when used as relative pronouns, link (or relate) a noun to another word or phrase in the sentence, providing more (and sometimes essential) information. For example:

The woman who sells pickles always remembers my name.

But would it be wrong to say that in this case? Grammatically, yes. Let’s find out why.

Use Who for People and That for Things

Generally speaking, we use who to refer to people:

My friends who hike every Saturday know all the best trails.

We use that when referring to things:

It was my partner’s idea to do the hike that almost killed me.

The trekking poles that I decided not to use might have prevented my disastrous fall.

Exceptions to the Guidelines

So, what about animals? Is it wrong to use who to refer to your beloved pet? According to The Associated Press Stylebook and The Chicago Manual of Style, it’s perfectly fine, especially if your furry friend has a name. But that works better when referring to animals you have less of a connection with. Note the difference:

My beloved cat, Belle, whom I got at the pound, is the sweetest creature ever. But the feral cats that live near the bridge give me the creeps.

Another exception is that, when writing about a group of people, such as a team or an organization, it’s fine to use that rather than who:

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The non-profit organization that maintains the hiking trails ran out of money.

The team that I’ve picked to win the World Cup is a bit of an underdog.

In Summary

When you’re deciding whether to use who or that, remember these simple guidelines:

●  Use who to refer to people.

●  Use that to refer to objects or things.

●  Use who to refer to animals with names. (Check your appropriate style guide as needed.)

●  Use that to refer to a group of people (e.g., a team or an organization).

We hope these tips help you use these relative pronouns with ease. If you’d like one of our professional proofreaders to review your work, we’re here to help. Submit a 500-word sample today, and we’ll proofread it for free!

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