Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Wednesday Writing Tips: Who versus That

by Martha Punches
Good Morning, Writing Class.

Let’s be honest here. How many times have you been reading along, thoroughly enjoying your leisure reading time, and gotten jerked out of your concentration on the hot sex story/murderer being revealed/cliffhanger ending because the author has used THAT instead of WHO? Am I the only one who hates this? Nah, I can’t be.

WHO. When you have to use either Who or That, think person. Who, and this is no pun intended, is this word or phrase referring to? If your sentence has a person mentioned, you should use WHO, not THAT.


All the usual suspects were gathered in the parlor. Only Greeves, the butler that found the poor strangled Headmaster, was missing.

No no no no no! Okay, this is a personal pet peeve of mine but it grates on my nerves to read it that way.

Read the sentences again but put in who for that.

All the usual suspects were gathered in the parlor. Only Greeves, the butler who found the poor strangled Headmaster, was missing.

Now doesn’t that sound much better? Just agree with me and it will cause a whole lot less friction! I won’t be forced to issue a complaint about the whole matter.

According to the Quick and Dirty Tips Grammar Girl site (, the Who versus That issue has gray areas. Many are convinced you must use Who with people and you use That with an object. Others would swear you have to use That with people. However, there is no hard and fast rule. Consistency is the key. I absolutely love her quote. “To me, using that when you are talking about a person makes them seem less than human. I always think of my friend who would only refer to his new stepmother as the woman that married my father. He was clearly trying to indicate his animosity and you wouldn't want to do that accidentally.” So, unless you are writing hard core science fiction and want to refer to your characters as objects or things, not humns or human-like, use Who!

There may not be a ‘Use It Or Else’ rule in all the grammar books, but be nice. Use Who with people and That with objects. Make me happy.

Memory tip: That = Things

And that concludes our session about Who versus That. Our next lesson will be on the usage of That versus Which.

Class dismissed.


Anonymous said...

Thank you! This is one of my very major pet peeves. Now, if someone could do a piece on subject/verb agreement - in particular was/were.

Barbara Elsborg said...

Ditto to anon! The was-were thing is tricky.
He wished he were taller.
He wished he was taller.

PLEASE do a tip sheet on that!

Julie said...

Or using the possessive as opposed to the plural. MY pet peeve :-)

Jenni Wiltz said...

Love, love, love this post! Thanks for highlighting the easiest way ever to decide between "who" and "that."

Now, if only we could find a way to unify subjects and objects once and for all: "Americans live their life one day at a time" vs. "Americans live their lives one day at a time."