Who vs. That: Can That Be Used for People?

Summary

Both who and that can refer to people (someone who/that cares, people who/that work here, kids who/that like to read). Who is preferred in formal usage, such as academic writing.

Who and that as relative pronouns

Both who and that are relative pronouns, which link relative clauses to the nouns they describe.

Examples
  • The architect who created this design has won an award.
    The pronoun “who” introduces a clause that describes “the architect.”
  • People who enjoy seafood will like this restaurant.
  • Anita, who worked with me on this project, has left the company.
  • We sell shoes that are environmentally friendly.
    The pronoun “that” introduces a clause that describes the noun “shoes.”
  • Students that have already applied need not reapply.

When to use who

Use the pronoun who to refer to people and to animals with a name, but not to inanimate objects.

Examples
  • Rita, who loves to swim, lives on an island in the Pacific.
  • The new owner, who thinks he knows everything, has fired half the staff on his first day.
  • This is the story of a woman who believed in herself.
  • The man who wrote this book has won an award.
  • People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.
  • My cat Tooks, who likes sunning herself, sleeps on the porch in the mornings.

Who can also be used to refer to groups of people (collective nouns that refer to humans).

Examples
  • She called the police, who refused to believe her.
  • The jury who convicted her clearly believed there was sufficient evidence.

When to use that

Use the pronoun that to refer to things, animals, persons, and groups.

Examples
  • The parcel that arrived yesterday contained books.
  • I need a phone that works.
  • Cats that live with humans meow to get attention.
  • A hibernating bear that is disturbed can awake instantly to defend itself.
  • He was the only adult that believed in me.
  • The team that handles media queries has not responded.

Who vs. that for people

You can use both who and that to refer to people.

Examples
  • I’m looking for someone who/that can work with wood.
  • How can I contact the doctor who/that is treating me?
  • The player who/that has the most tokens wins the game.

In formal writing, prefer to use who instead of that to refer to persons.

Examples
  • More formal: We need someone who understands horses.
    Less formal: We need someone that understand horses.
  • More formal: Who is the reporter who asked this question?
    Less formal: Who’s the reporter that asked this question?

Note that that can replace who (or whom) only in restrictive clauses. (A restrictive clause is essential to identify the person or thing being referred to and is not enclosed in commas.)

Examples
  • Someone who/that likes challenges would love this job.
  • Managers who/that have already replied should ignore this email.

Always use who instead of that to refer to a person in a nonrestrictive clause. (A nonrestrictive clause provides an optional description and is enclosed in commas.)

Examples
  • Rita, who/that likes challenges, wants to climb Mt. Everest.
  • My manager, who/that understands software but not people, thinks I work because I like working.

Can that refer to a person? Additional guidance

Grammar and usage authorities generally agree that the pronoun that can refer to both people and things. Dictionaries (like Oxford, Merriam-Webster, and Cambridge) define the word that as a relative pronoun that can refer to people, animals, and inanimate objects.

Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage as well states that that refers to persons and things, providing examples from both earlier and current literature. Likewise, The Cambridge Grammar of English notes that the pronoun that can replace who and whom in a wide range of informal styles.

Given the preference for who over that in formal styles, it is not surprising that some style manuals, like the AP Stylebook and APA Publication Manual, recommend using who instead of that to refer to people. Others however, like the Chicago Manual of Style and MLA Handbook, note that both who and that can be used for people.

Examples from published content

Here are some examples from literature that show how that can be used in place of who to refer to people.

Examples
  • A man that hath no virtue in himself, ever envieth virtue in others.
    Francis Bacon, “Of Envy,” Essays (1597)
  • I grant I am a woman, but, withal / A woman that Lord Brutus took to wife.
    William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar (1599)
  • Some of the best people that ever lived have been as destitute as I am.
    Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre (1847)
  • I heard an owl, away off, who-whooing about somebody that was dead, and a whippowill and a dog crying about somebody that was going to die.
    Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884)
  • Very nice sort of place, Oxford, I should think, for people that like that sort of place.
    George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman (1903)
  • I knew that fear was invented by someone that had never had the fear; pride, who never had the pride.
    William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying (1930)
  • Blessed be those that mourn, for they shall be comforted. Nobody said when.
    Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)

The following examples from news publications and academic journals show how that is often used to refer to people in all but the most formal writing, especially in place of whom.

Examples
  • Sociologists and philosophers of science, in turn, are acquiring a more intimate understanding of the scientists that they study.
    — “Mind the Gap,” Nature 462, 825–826 (2009)
  • As a reporter, you can only really get a sense of how things are going from the politicians you meet and the voters that you speak to.
    — “Election ‘Roller Coaster’ Gains Speed in Greater Manchester,” BBC News (Apr. 16, 2015)
  • That, the lobbyists contend, would hurt the employees that Congress wants to help.
    — “Enron’s Many Strands,” New York Times (Feb. 9, 2002)

Quick Quiz

Which is correct?
Choose from these answers
All done!
Which is correct?
Choose from these answers
All done!
Which is preferred in formal writing?
Choose from these answers
All done!
Which is correct?
Choose from these answers
All done!

Did You Know?

A prepositional phrase (e.g., at night) can be the subject in a sentence.
Know more:Forms of the Subject in Grammar