Word Showdown: Who vs. That

Today, on Word Showdown (showdown, showdown), we have in the left corner, that wiggly word who! And in the right corner, we have that! Who is going to win? Errr . . . that is going to win?

who vs. that

Who and that (when they are confused) are serving as pronouns. They stand in for a noun or a noun phrase. The difference between them is a little more straightforward that our previous Word Showdown, That vs. Which. For these, think in terms of people.

If your pronoun is standing in for a person, use who:

In this photo, we see the woman who grabbed the trapeze with her feet while standing on an elephant.

If your pronoun is standing in for an object, use that.

Oh, and this photo shows the candlestick that the trapeze artist balanced on her head!

Let’s test your knowledge!

A. The artist who/that made this legen . . . wait for it  . . . dary pie chart really knew what he was doing.

B. Was it the ducky tie or the high five who/that made the awful sound?

C. Patrice was the one who/that let the dogs out.

Bonus points if you know what show I’m referencing!

[insert Jeopardymusic]




Here are the answers:

A. The artist is a person, so who is correct.

B. The ducky tie and the high five are not sentient beings, so that is correct.

C. Patrice is a person, no matter what anyone else thinks, so who is correct.

Bonus: Go watch How I Met Your Mother if you haven’t already.

Now, you may wonder what happens when it comes to beings that aren’t people? As Grammar Girl notes, “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.”

Similarly, what do you do if you’re talking about a group, such as the Carter County School Board? It is made up of people, so what is it a who or a that? Generally groups and teams—collective nouns—of people are considered a that. However, if your phrasing makes it seem more like the people are the subjects, for instance “several of the PE teachers,” feel free to go with the choice that best fits your intention.

There is one other weird exception. You can say whose about either people or objects, as there is no possessive in English for that. Otherwise, think about who or what you are referring to and apply the rule accordingly!


2 thoughts on “Word Showdown: Who vs. That

  1. “You can say ‘whose’ about either people or objects, as there is no plural in English for ‘that.'” This is not really about the plural form of either a person (who) or an object (that); it is about the possessive (genitive) form. ‘Whose’ is the possessive of either a person or an object.

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