JS Tip 60: From the Writing Workshops: Using “Who” and “That”

Two weeks ago, we mentioned how you can build strength by developing friends. We suggested you “Ask the folks that love motorcycles about motorcycles” and “Ask the folks that love baseball about baseball.”

Our friend Jackie Mattila of Wells Fargo asked, “Shouldn’t it be ‘Ask the folks who love motorcycles about motorcycles. Ask the folks who love baseball about baseball?’ If you’re referring to folks, shouldn’t it be who, rather than that, which would refer to an inanimate object?”

Nice observation. Nice catch.

The general rule—principle, practice, method, style—is to use “who” when you’re referring to people and “that” when you’re referring to objects. Things.

Unfortunately, it’s not a solid rule. It’s been a discussion point for more than six hundred years. Geoffrey Chaucer, the author of The Canterbury Tales, (1343-1400) uses “that” to refer to people.

And The American Heritage College Dictionary states, “It is entirely acceptable to write either the man that wanted to talk to you, or the man who wanted to talk to you. (AHCD, page 1540)

The challenge grows when we talk about possession: “We trashed the computer whose circuit was acting up.” Whose? Yes. Whose. There’s no possessive word for “that.”

Another reason why English is a historical language and not a logical language. 

Makes you want to tear your hair out.  

And thank you, Jackie Mattila.