Column: That, which and who
Question: “Whatever happened to utilizing ‘who’ when referring to people and ‘that’ when referencing objects? So often today, even journalists improperly use the word ‘that.’ Example: ‘There are going to be people that (who) like it and people that (who) don’t.’
I implore you to utilize your article in Current to drive this point home to your audience.
Thanks.” – (John Lynch, Westfield)
Answer: Thanks for writing in, John. The problem you mention is one I notice too. Let’s see what we can do about it.
“That,” “which” and “who” (and its variants “whose” and “whom”) are all relative pronouns. Relative pronouns are used to link a subordinate clause to a main clause. They also serve as the noun within the subordinate clause.
That’s a lot of grammar, so let’s look at an example sentence: “John is the firefighter who rescued your cat.” Our main clause is “John is the firefighter,” and our subordinate clause is “who rescued your cat.” The relative pronoun “who” stands in for John in the subordinate clause and links the two clauses together.
The rules for “that,” “who” and “which” are pretty straightforward:
- 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.
What’s the difference between an essential and non-essential clause? An essential clause gives you information you need for the sentence to make sense. In our example sentence above, “who rescued your cat” is an essential clause – it tells us why we’re talking about John. If we discussed what John was wearing or his preference for mustard over ketchup, though, that would be non-essential information.
As a final thought: If you’re looking at the rules and thinking to yourself, “What about groups of people?” – there’s an answer for that. Consider the sentence: “Those are the robbers that broke into my store.” In the case of a class of people (robbers, moviegoers, politicians, etc.) either “who” or “that” may be used. I personally tend to always use “who” for people, but, then, I am a humanitarian at heart, after all.