Are You a Who or a That?

I sometimes get asked when to use who vs. that in a sentence. These two words are relative pronouns that need to correspond to the noun they’re referring to.

Let’s take this sen­tence: “The candidate who spends the most money usu­ally wins the election.”

Who con­nects the sub­ject, candidate, to the verb wins.

Many peo­ple will say “The candidate that spends the most money usu­ally wins the election.”

Here’s the thing: “who” (and its forms) refers to peo­ple. “That” usu­ally refers to things, but it can refer to peo­ple in a gen­eral sense (like a class or type of per­son). Purdue Online Writing Lab says, “When refer­ring to peo­ple, both that and who can be used in infor­mal lan­guage. ‘That’ may be used to refer to the char­ac­ter­is­tics or abil­i­ties of an indi­vid­ual or a group of peo­ple. . . . However, when speak­ing about a par­tic­u­lar per­son in for­mal lan­guage, who is preferred.”

That said, many peo­ple and some respected ref­er­ences pre­fer “peo­ple that,” and it’s not wrong. I often have animals that are main characters in my fantasy books, and they often speak (proper English, most of the time). So, I choose to use who instead of that. But some stickler will insist animals aren’t “whos.” You decide.


One Response to “Are You a Who or a That?”

  1. Jessica Flory July 26, 2013 at 7:40 am #

    Perfect timing on this one! I just started writing a fantasy novel with an animal as a main character, and I was wondering about this the other day. To me, they are a “who”. Thanks for the tips!

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