The Personals

When to use ‘who’ and ‘that’

“We’re the people that are going to say, ‘No,’ to Washington, D.C., taxing and spending,” U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX), told the House in arguing for a debt ceiling bill.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York said that all the talk of default was scaring investors, “companies who are afraid to invest in America or don’t want to expand.”

Can a person be a “that”? Can a company be a “who”?

Yes. And no.

“Who” and “that” are called relative pronouns, meaning they relate to the noun they’re replacing. (The third one is “which,” but that would get us into discussions of when to use “which” and when to use “that,” and we’re not going there today, as we’re not going to talk about all the other uses for “that.”)

Because “who” is personal, you might think (or have been taught) that it had to be used exclusively when people were involved: “The boy who cried wolf,” not “the boy that cried wolf.” You had to use “that” for a thing.

In recent years, though, “who” is being used more when discussing inanimate objects, mostly companies, as Bloomberg did. Common in speech, it’s creeping into written language as well. Sorry, but just because the Supreme Court (pdf) says corporations are people, too, they don’t get to be “who.” In Modern American Usage, Bryan A. Garner says that that usage is at Stage 1 on the Language-Change Index, the equivalent of a mortal sin.

Given that logic, you might think that “that” can be applied only to inanimate things. But “that,” which has had its ups and downs over the centuries, “has applied to persons since its 18th-century revival just as it did before its 17th-century eclipse,” Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says. Garner is more abrupt, saying “it’s a silly fetish to insist that who is the only relative pronoun that can refer to humans.”

The Associated Press Stylebook says “Use that and which in referring to inanimate objects and to animals without a name.” “Who,” AP says, “is the pronoun used for references to human beings and to animals with a name.” The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage agrees, even though its longtime language guru Theodore M. Bernstein wrote in The Careful Writer: “Which normally refers to things, who to persons, and that to either persons or things. The point is elementary and needs no elaboration.”

If you use one of those stylebooks, you should humor them, smug in the knowledge that you are more right than they are.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl. Tags: , , , , ,