September 26, 2013

Weekly Language Usage Tips: Who or that

Posted in who or that at 8:02 am by dlseltzer

Tip: Who or that

A reader writes:

My question for you:

“people who…” or “people that…” / “those who…” or “those that…”?

We found a source that said both are acceptable but I almost never see “people/those who…” even though it makes more sense to me.

As always, thanks for your guidance.

The general guidance is ‘who’ is for people, and ‘that’ is for things.

That being said, the reader is absolutely correct, we usually see ‘people that’ and ‘those that.’ And there is precedence for that: proponents of ‘people that’ say that Chaucer used it as did Shakespeare as did many others. So, it has been done, and it isn’t “wrong.’ That’s true.

But it isn’t elegant, either. When I review something and see ‘the man that,’ I will correct it to ‘the man who.’ In writing, I aim for grace, and the reality is ‘who’ refers to people, and ‘that’ refers to other things. Maintaining that notion is more graceful than pounding people into ‘that.’ It’s not that it’s not acceptable, it is.

It’s just less elegant.

1 Comment »

  1. Yes. And Yes. Additionally, the word “that” shows up way too often in writing as it is. I’m always going through and striking out thats from my drafts. Using the more precise “who” is a good way to further limit the usage of that ubiquitous that.


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