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  • Writer's pictureRachel Paige

That or Who

Interchanging that and who is a minor pet peeve of mine. The way I was taught was that who refers to people and that refers to objects. Animals and plants are usually considered objects, but it's up for debate.

Now, technically there's nothing wrong with this. The Chicago Manuel of Style says who is for people and that is for people, animals, and inanimate objects.

However, the phrase "the man that spoke yesterday" or "the woman that married him" don't sound right to me.

It seems a bit dehumanizing to refer to a person as "that." After all, doesn't "the man who spoke yesterday" sound better? Or "the woman who married him?" It gives a sense of humanness and doesn't refer to the person the same way you'd refer to a lamp or an apple.

This is one of those things that once you notice it, you can't unnotice it.

In casual conversation, it doesn't matter much, but correctly referring to people as "who" looks better in a professional setting.

One reason this bothers me is because you can't switch the other way. If I say "the apple who was bruised" then suddenly, I'm talking about a sentient apple. I've humanized it. But saying "the man that crossed the street" doesn't seem to bother people.

If referring to an apple the way I'd refer to a person makes it a person, then why does referring to a man the way I'd refer to an apple not make it an apple?

What are your thoughts on who vs. that? Do you think it matters?


Exercise 1:

To get you used to these types of phrases, here's a few examples.

1. The man who crossed the street.

2. The apple that was bruised

3. The dog that barked loudly (who barked loudly? Your choice.)

4. The tree that was seven feet tall

5. The girl who fell asleep in class

6. The lamp that won't turn on

7. The boy who ran fast

8. The baby who cried all night

9. The door that leaked cold air

10. The carpet stain that wouldn't go away.

Try switching who and that in each phrase and seeing if they still sound right.

Exercise 2:

I mentioned using "who" for an inanimate object makes them sentient. Try writing a story personifying an object and take note of your use of who or that. It's an easy way to remind readers that the object is a living being in your story.

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