Here at Versus All we speak many languages. We’re speakers and writers of French, Portuguese, Spanish and, of course, English. Well, sometimes we compare notes and give each other mini lessons in our native tongues, and it’s through this informal education that we’ve learned one thing: the English language is extremely confusing.
Whether you’re writing formally or informally, it can sometimes be hard to decide the correct word to use. That’s especially true when choosing between pronouns. That vs who is one of the most frequently encountered grammar enigmas in the English language. Therefore, it’s okay if you don’t understand which to use and when. That’s why we’re here!
Let’s look at the difference between that and who, discuss the difference between the meanings they relay, and determine which is best to use in certain situations.
That vs Who: The Basics
That and who are both pronouns. It may be that you believe the two words are interchangeable, but this isn’t the case. Take a look at the following example:
- Pete’s brother, who lives in Oxford, has a nose ring.
- Pete’s brother that lives in Oxford has a nose ring.
Which of these sentences is correct? The first one! Pete’s brother is a person, despite the nose ring, and he should be referred to as such.
Let’s look at the second sentence for a minute. There’s a better, more grammatically acceptable way to phrase that statement:
- Pete’s brother, the one who lives in Oxford, has a nose ring.
So you see, the two sentences have two different implications. The first sentence refers to Pete’s brother as a person, and rightfully so. It is, by all counts, correct.
The second sentence is tricky. It could be that the author is trying to set the pierced brother apart from Pete’s other brothers, as is indicated in the rephrase. But on the whole, that sentence is grammatically acceptable yet not preferred. It is much more widely accepted to use the word “who” when referring to a person.
Now, the rules may change when you’re writing about a group of people. Let’s look at two more sentences.
- The Spaghetti Lovers Club is the group who invented carbonara.
- The Spaghetti Lovers Club is the group that invented carbonara.
Which one would you use? Either is technically correct, but in this case it’s preferable in American English to refer to the SLC as a “that” than a “who.”
That vs Who: When to Use Each
When you’re speaking or writing, it’s generally agreed that people should be referred to as “who” or “whom,” depending upon context. The word “that” should be used for pretty much everything else.
“That” as a pronoun usually takes the place of a noun which is a thing, an animal, a group of people (like the Spaghetti Lovers Club) or, sometimes, a place. “That” is not to be confused with “which,” but that’s another article for another day (as is Could Care Less vs Couldn’t Care Less, which you may find equally fascinating).
Here are two examples of widely accepted use of who vs that:
- Jeannette is the one who put the icing on layaway.
- This rock is the one that fell on Burt’s moped.
- There’s the bird that woke Emmy from her coma.
- Those professors are the ones who/that let the oysters go free.
That and who, in each of these sentences, refers to either a thing, a person, or a group of people. As you can see, it’s commonly acceptable to use either who or that in the last sentence, as a group of people may be referred to as either.
Let us, now, go ahead and contradict ourselves. We’ve got a handy tip to share with you, which may serve as a bit of grammatical relief. And this tip comes straight from the American Heritage Dictionary.
It is entirely acceptable to write either the man that wanted to talk to you, or the man who wanted to talk to you.
Oh, boy. So as it turns out, it’s okay to use either “who” or “that” when referring to Pete’s pierced brother, Jeannette the layaway queen, or any other person. Our suggestion to you, however, is to try to adhere to the standard rules if you’re completing an academic work. Professors can be sticklers for grammar usage.
That vs Who: The Verdict
There are two types of people in this world. Those “who” are Grammar Police and those “that” don’t give a damn. If you’re reading this, you’re either the grammar police coming to make sure that the internet is in order, or you’re genuinely curious about what’s considered proper use of these pronouns.
Here’s the good news: if you’re not a native English speaker, you’re not going to get in trouble for using “that” when you should have used “who.” Fortunately (unfortunately for the Police), we live in a society where we’re a bit more accepting of those who don’t speak like they’re reciting Chaucer.
In many, most in fact, of the Romance languages, determining the correct use of pronouns is quite simple. Every noun is either masculine or feminine, and it’s referred to as such. The pronoun you use to replace these nouns is usually a variation of the English “what.” As an example, in Portuguese and Spanish, “que” is usually used, whether referring to a person or a thing.
There is, in English, also a huge difference between that vs who with respect to formal vs informal speech. Text, email and social media have eliminated much of the need for us to speak like eggheads. Your friends don’t expect proper grammar from you all the time.
However, there’s going to come a time when you need to know which to use: that or who. In that case, simply keep the general guideline in mind. “Who” is used when you’re referring to a person. “That” is used for pretty much everything else.
That vs who doesn’t have to be a grammatical conundrum. Stick to the basics – people vs things – and you can’t go wrong.