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Pronouns for People and Animals: "Who" or "That"?

Can a person be a “that,” and is your dog an “it” or a “she”?

By
Mignon Fogarty
Episode #350

who or that

Today we’re going to talk about a grammar myth: that you can never use the word “that” to refer to people. Then we’ll get to the burning questions of whether your dog (or cat) is an “it” or a “she” or "he" and whether you can talk about a table whose legs are scratched.

“Who” Versus “That”

First, let’s talk about “who” versus “that.”

Many people have been taught that you should never use the pronoun “that” to refer to a person—that a sentence such as “Girls that have long hair buy more scrunchies,” is wrong, and that it should be “Girls who have long hair buy more scrunchies.” I was taught that rule, but it turns out that it’s a myth.

It’s not wrong to use “who,” but it’s also not wrong to use “that.” I checked a bunch of major style guides. Garner’s Modern American Usage, the Chicago Manual of Style, Fowler’s Modern English Usage, and the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage all say that although it’s always fine to use “who,” it’s also fine to use “that.” For example, it’s fine to write something like “Girls that have long hair buy more scrunchies.”

It’s been done for a very long time and the objection to it is more recent. Chaucer and Shakespeare, for example, used “that” to refer to people, and Merriam-Webster notes that usage writers only started objecting to it in the early 1900s.

A Class Versus an Individual

I crafted that particular scrunchie sentence to highlight the instance where Fowler said using “that” is most common: when you’re writing about someone who represents a class rather than an individual person. In that sentence—”Girls that have long hair buy more scrunchies”—we’re talking about girls with long hair in general, not one specific girl.

That’s a little bit different from a sentence like “The girls who stole my scrunchie should give it back,” in which I’m talking about very specific girls. Fowler would say that it’s OK to use “that” in a sentence like that too, just that it’s less common than doing so in a sentence where the person represents a whole class of people like girls that have long hair, or boys that play soccer, or babies that cry.

Fowler also covers instances in which you have a human and an inanimate object together. In those instances you should clearly use “that,” especially when the inanimate object comes second: “I enjoy spending time with boys and songs that make me happy.”

General Grammar Versus Styles

Now I need to mention rules versus styles. Although in general grammar it’s not a hard-and-fast rule that you must use “who” to refer to people, certain style guides do require it. For example, if you’re following APA style, you are required to use “who” and not “that” to refer to humans.

Next: Is Your Kitten a Who or a That?

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About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of the Quick and Dirty Tips network and creator of Grammar Girl, which has been named one of Writer's Digest's 101 best websites for writers multiple times. The Grammar Girl podcast has also won Best Education Podcast multiple times in the Podcast Awards, and Mignon is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame. Mignon is the author of the New York Times best-seller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing" and six other books on writing. She has appeared as a guest on the "Oprah Winfrey Show" and the "Today Show" and has been featured in the New York Times, Business Week, the Washington Post, USA Today, CNN.com, and more. She was previously the chair of media entrepreneurship in the Reynolds School of Journalism in Reno, NV. She hates the phrase "grammar nazi" and loves the word "kerfuffle." She has a B.A. in English from the University of Washington in Seattle and an M.S. in biology from Stanford University. Mignon believes that learning is fun, and the vast rules of grammar are wonderful fodder for lifelong study. 

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