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TWTS: For people that use “that” instead of “who”

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If we talk about a person “that” does things as opposed to a person “who” does things, some people worry we’re not respecting the person as a person.

While there is perhaps a deeper philosophical argument to be made about “who” vs. “that,” for many of us, it came down to a basic rule: People get “who” and things get “that.”

English Professor Anne Curzan used to apply this rule when correcting her students’ papers. If a student wrote “the person that,” she would underline “that” and write “who.” That is, until a graduate student asked her why.

The graduate student, who also happened to teach English as a second language, told Curzan that grammar books say it’s fine to use “that” in place of “who.” Curzan checked it out and, sure enough, they were right.

“I have never underlined ‘that’ in these constructions again,” Curzan says. “As a historian of the English language, I should have known better, that we have hundreds of years of evidence of ‘that’ being used with animate antecedents.”

Although current usage guides have many concerns about relative pronouns, including “who” vs. “whom,” and “that” vs. “which,” they say it’s perfectly fine to say things like “the student that” or “the girl that.”

Of course, if you prefer, you can continue to use “who” for people and reserve “that” for things.

Interestingly, using “that” with animate antecedents can actually help us bypass the question of whether to use “who” or “whom” in a particular construction. To find out how, listen to the audio above.

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Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of Weekend Edition at Michigan Radio. She also co-hosts Michigan Radio’s weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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