Question: “Dear Grammar Guy, over the past few years I have increasingly heard the word ‘that’ used in place of the word ‘who.’ Example: ‘The people that work for us.’ I even hear this on national radio programs. What do you think of that?” – (Anne Eisinger)
Answer: Thanks for the question, Anne. It’s a subject I’ve touched on before, but definitely one worth revisiting.
You are right to cringe when the word “that” is used to refer to a person (or animal … my cat would be the first to tell you she’s no “that”). When talking about a person, use the relative pronoun “who” or the object pronoun “whom,” if appropriate.
The word “that” gets a lot of hate in writerly circles because it tends to be unnecessary. Consider what, if anything, is lost between, “He said that it would be all right,” and, “He said it would be all right.”
That being said (see what I did there?), there are occasions when “that” is both appropriate and necessary. For your convenience, here are three simple rules to help clear things up:
- Use “who” when talking about people.
- Use “that” when talking about objects or groups and introducing an essential clause.
- Use “which” when talking about objects or groups and introducing a non-essential clause.
I’ve previously done a series of columns about clauses, so if you need a refresher course on the difference between an essential and non-essential clause, you can brush up with an old Grammar Guy at youarecurrent.com.
As always, I wouldn’t be able to do what I do without ongoing support and questions from readers, so please keep doing what you do and sending them my way!