Today for Grammar Time, we’re discussing when to use who versus that when used in essential clauses (also known as restrictive clauses). These clauses start with “who” or “that” without a comma because the information following the clause is important to the sentence and essential in defining the noun.
What Is the Rule?
The basic rule is who should only be used with people and that should be used with animals, groups, and things.
Correct: They tore down the house that was haunted by ghosts.
Incorrect: They tore down the house who was haunted by ghosts.
Correct: Amanda is the one who won the spelling bee four times.
Incorrect: Amanda is the one that won the spelling bee four times.
While who is used for individuals, don’t be confused with groups of people. That is used for groups or collective nouns. This means that words like company, team, and business should use that instead of who.
Correct: He plays for a baseball team that always loses.
Incorrect: He plays for a baseball team who always loses.
Can That Ever Be Used for People?
As with many grammar rules, the rules can get a little complicated. Generally, who is preferred when referring to people. However, a number of style guides and usage dictionaries, including the Yahoo! Style Guide, suggest the word that can reasonably be used when referring to unknown or generic individuals as a relative pronoun.
For example, both of these could be considered correct:
Anyone that shops on 4th Avenue is rich.
Anyone who shops on 4th Avenue is rich.
Because anyone is so ambiguous and broad, that is appropriate and the reader will still grasp the overall meaning. However, many people still believe that that should never be used with individual people because it dehumanizes them.
While this debate is along the lines of other mythical grammar rules, like splitting infinitives and ending sentences with prepositions, you may want to avoid using that when referring to a person if you feel like you need to be more formal. Once you make this decision, it’s wise to keep it consistent throughout your writing, rather than switching back and forth between that and which. If you want to be strictly correct, you can always keep to the basic rule.
So, those are the basics on when to use that or who for essential clauses. Till next time!