Who Versus That

The quick and dirty tip is that you use who when you are talking about a person and that when you are talking about an object, but it's also more complicated than that.

Mignon Fogarty
3-minute read
Episode #24

Strange Exceptions

Finally, even if you accept the conventional wisdom, there are some gray areas and strange exceptions. For example, what do you do when you are talking about something animate that isn't human? That's a gray area, and it can actually go either way. I would never refer to my dog as anything less than who, but my fish could probably be a that.

One strange exception is that you can use whose, which is the possessive form of who, to refer to both people and things (5,6,7,8) because English doesn't have a possessive form of that. So it's fine to say, "The desk whose top is cluttered with grammar books," even though it is obviously ridiculous to say, "The desk who is made of cherry wood."

So now you understand the details, but you can also remember the quick and dirty rule that who goes with people and that goes with things.


1. Burchfield, R.W., ed. The New Fowler's Modern English Usage. Third edition. New York: Oxford, 1996, p. 773.

2. Lynch, Jack. Guide to Grammar and Style.  October 31, 2006. < http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~jlynch/Writing/w.html> (accessed November 3, 2006).

3. The American Heritage College Dictionary. Third edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993, p. 1540.

4. Burchfield, R.W. ed. The New Fowler's Modern English Usage. Third edition. New York: Oxford, 1996, p. 773.

5. Lynch, Jack. Guide to Grammar and Style. October 31, 2006 <http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~jlynch/Writing/w.html> (accessed November 3, 2006).

6. The American Heritage Book of English Usage. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996. <http://www.bartleby.com/64/C001/049.html#POSSESSIVECO> (accessed November 3, 2006).

7. Pronouns and Pronoun-Antecedent Agreement. Hartford: Community College Capital Foundation, <http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/pronouns.htm> (accessed November 3, 2006).

8. Quinion, Michael. World Wide Words. 4 November 2000 <http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-who3.htm> (accessed November 3, 2006). 

Image: Geoffrey Chaucer, Unknown at Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.


About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.