This grammar “rule” has a lot of people on the fence. Some people think you should always use who when referring to a person, while others believe using that is just fine.
The “rule” is that you use that to refer to an inanimate object, while you use who to refer to a person.
I try to use who whenever possible, but sometimes that sounds better, although it is often simply your preference. Consider the following:
- My brother met the woman that he is going to marry.
- My brother met the woman whom he is going to marry.
In this situation, I think that looks and sounds better, but if you’d rather use who or whom, go for it.
Does it matter?
It does matter if your field requires you to use a certain form. For example, the American Psychological Association requires the use of who for people (both proper nouns and common nouns) and the use of that for objects and “nonhuman animals.”
- The doctor who prescribed the medication was liable for malpractice.
- The rats that ran through the maze received cheese.
You can choose whether to use who or that with common nouns, but in almost every case, you’ll use who with proper nouns, especially when the proper noun is followed by a restrictive clause.
- Correct: John, who lives on Maple Lane, came over for dinner last week.
- Incorrect: John, that lives on Maple Lane, came over for dinner last week.
You can see that using that in the second sentence doesn’t make sense because you’re referencing a proper noun, but consider the next example:
- The man who lives next door stole my newspaper.
- The man that lives next door stole my newspaper.
Both who and that in this situation look and sound correct; however, as usual, you can choose which sounds best to you.
Check out last week’s post on which vs. that and come back next week to learn about some great writing resources.
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