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Who or That - English Grammar and Idioms

Updated on June 15, 2014

He That Which Meant Who?

Certain grammatical rules for writing and editing in English differ by country, but also sometimes by regions.

Some language rules can change among academic writing, business writing, and popular fiction writing as will. As writers of some experience, we can even create and cause new words and new rules to be adopted at large.

The battle of Who and That is at hand today and it is baffling many writers and readers. The factors at war are the written rules and the academic rules that I have been required to follow in certain phases of my career. This experience is no doubt shared by many people.

During advanced degree studies and related article writing, the pertinent rule of grammar was to always use the word "that" in the following type of communication:

  • He was the driver that crashed the car last night.
  • The negative stimulus that caused an allergic reaction was eliminated from the study.
  • That is a challenge that cannot go unmentioned.
  • Those are to be the students that distribute the brochures throughout the community.

The Rules

I find written rules to the contrary of my own experiences in academic studies. Some websites state that "who" is to be used with any person or people and "that" should be used with inanimate objects. The question of animals is not answered. For example, should Lilian Jackson Braun's The Cat Who... mystery series be renamed The Cat That...?

At the same time, I find in articles across the Internet and in some classrooms statements like these:

  • The tables whose leg is marred needs to be repaired.
  • The book to be read is the one whose cover is blue.
  • The findings of the study, whose results are laughable, must be replicated before they can be considered generalizable to the larger population.

I think all of these uses of "who" are incorrect - at least sound strange - but, several grammar referecnes state that it is OK, because there is no plural of that. However, I was trained to edit the above sentences in this manner:

  • The tables, the leg of which is marred needs to be repaired.
  • The book to be read is the one with the blue cover. More simply: Read the book with the blue cover. [No who or that at all in either case.]
  • The findings of the study, the results of which are laughable, must be replicated before they can be considered generalizable.

Thoughts From Some Experts

American Heritage Dictionary Third edition.Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993, p. 1540: "It is entirely acceptable to write either the man that wanted to talk to you, or the man who wanted to talk to you."

Dr. Grammar: That or Which or Who? -- Do not use which to refer to persons. Use who instead. That, though generally used to refer to things, may be used to refer to a group or class of people.


  • The player who [not that or which] made the basket at the buzzer was named MVP.
  • The team that scores the most points in this game will win the tournament (Hacker, A Writer's Reference 136).; retrieved March 30, 2010.

Purdue OWL (I love owls, don't you?), the Online Writing Lab, offers this key:

  • People are "who" or "that" and things are "that" or "which."
  • Plurals for people and things may be either "whose" or "of which.; retrieved March 30, 2010.

(Images from public domain collection at Wikimedia Commons, captioned with help of LOL Cats:
(Images from public domain collection at Wikimedia Commons, captioned with help of LOL Cats:


Considering all of the possibilities, I think it best for you choose one consistent way of writing for the target audience you want to reach and in the milieu in which you find yourself.

An easy method is to always use who for people and that for objects, decide on what to do about animals, and stick to your system. The Cat Who Came to Breakfast would not be as humorous and catchy it the word that were used instead of who.

If you are working with a teacher, a professor, a doctoral review panel, an editor(s) or a boss(es) that has authority over your written word, find out what grammar rules they are using and use them or persuade them to use yours - but at least use the same ones consistently. English is difficult enough!

Please Add Your School and Professional Experiences Here

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    • Mystique1957 profile image

      Mystique1957 7 years ago from Caracas-Venezuela

      Well, I finally get to "meet" You, Patty...

      I`ve chosen this hub because ever since I was taught English, I remember all my grammar teachers being a pain in the butt. I try to apply all the rules, when in doubt I surf the web in every direction and even read articles by professionals looking for a hint. My own language(Spanish) is very complex in terms of rules and verb tenses.

      I found this hub quite informative and useful. Thanks for sharing! More than happy to become your follower!

      Warmest regards and infinite eternal blessings,


    • ethel smith profile image

      Eileen Kersey 7 years ago from Kingston-Upon-Hull

      I think American English is taught different to Englishj English if you know what I mean. However over the many years since I left school most rules have become muuddled in my mind

    • Jamiehousehusband profile image

      Jamiehousehusband 7 years ago from Derbyshire, UK

      Good to see someone still concerneda bout grammar these days - I hate all this slang text speak. I had trouble this week with the word 'humorous', mainly because UK dictionary (and I) spell humour, as opposed to US homor. Interesting hub, thanks.

    • mwatkins profile image

      mwatkins 7 years ago from Portland, Oregon & Vancouver BC

      My husband and I argue over 'to' and 'too' all the time. I say too much he says to much. I love your article! Thank you for sharing your knowledge! ;-)

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image

      Patty Inglish 7 years ago from North America

      Who-se mistaken? :) I think I'll carry an owl with me as a grammar resoruce. Will they fit on a keychain?

    • Faybe Bay profile image

      Faye Constantino 7 years ago from Florida

      I think I have some rewrites to do. :) Thank you Patty for putting it in perspective. I have to go check my grammar, I am almost sure I have made 'that' mistake.

    • profile image

      Character 7 years ago

      Terrific Hub. No matter how much we think we understand, most of us are prone to making mistakes. Many thanks for the info.

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image

      Patty Inglish 7 years ago from North America

      BDazzler - I am humbled and honored by your words. It's exactly what I try to accomplish - look for the best without undue bloodshed! Flexibility to change among venues is a good thing to have and rules that change all the time without a ratinale are mindless to me. Thanks for your post!

      rebekahELLE - grammargirl is pretty accurate, entertaining, and easy to read, while the first recourse I examine is always PurdueOWL, out of habit. Thanks for writing.

      Smireles - I almost never use "which" at all any more, because of just such a confusion.

      Sandyspider - A lot of our language is tricky like that. Sale and sell sound exactly the same in some parts of the country. Glad to see you visit here.

    • rebekahELLE profile image

      rebekahELLE 7 years ago from Tampa Bay

      great info Patty. It does become tricky at times trying to remember which word to use. I keep a writers book nearby or check out grammargirl online. I think grammar used to be taught more in 'grammar' school and now it's anything goes!

    • Sandyspider profile image

      Sandy Mertens 7 years ago from Wisconsin, USA

      Great English lesson. I have problems with sale and sell.

    • Smireles profile image

      Sandra Mireles 7 years ago from Texas

      Thanks for this educational hub. I find myself tangled up between that and which too often for comfort!

    • BDazzler profile image

      BDazzler 7 years ago from Gulf Coast, USA

      One of the things I admire about you Patty, is your relentless pursuit of excellence combined with a reality check. I think your summary is "pure Patty Inglish".

      "Considering all of the possibilities, I suggest that you choose one consistent way of writing for the milieu in which you find yourself."

      You've presented the problem, the background, and possibilities for a solution in a way that is both helpful and respectful to your readers.

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image

      Patty Inglish 7 years ago from North America

      I have not a single idea why, but Russian seemed a lot more straightforward to me when I began learning that one. Anyway,the owls have it!

    • JenDobson27 profile image

      JenDobson27 7 years ago

      Why does the English language have to be so darn confusing? :) Great hub, I really enjoyed reading it!

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image

      Patty Inglish 7 years ago from North America

      Thank you for commenting, friends! It was just as much fun and good information to see all your guidelines as it was to put together this Hub. "The Cat Who..." does sound pretty right to me, Feline Prophet!

    • Hello, hello, profile image

      Hello, hello, 7 years ago from London, UK

      Thank you, Patty, for a great lesson which will be great help.

    • profile image

      Feline Prophet 7 years ago

      As a copy editor in India, where people often make up their own rules for English, I'm often faced by sentences that make me doubt my own knowledge of the language! In such cases I go by what 'sounds' right! 'The tables whose leg is marred needs to be repaired' doesn't sound right at all!

      P.S. We felines prefer to be known as who! :P

    • Trish_M profile image

      Tricia Mason 7 years ago from The English Midlands

      Yes, 'who' for people ~ or even for animals, which are treated as people.

    • lmmartin profile image

      lmmartin 7 years ago from Alberta and Florida

      I also agree; who is applicable to people and that for inanimate objects. I'm somewhat divided on animals and perhaps that depends on context. In a story featuring animals as characters, then I'd think who; in an article discussing species and behavior, I'd use that. Lynda

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image

      Patty Inglish 7 years ago from North America

      I agree with you, William, that clarity is the priority... and owls will say. "Who." Thanks for giving me a smile!

    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 7 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      Another great hub, Patty. I believe "who" should only be used for people, although I agree that "that" is OK for groups of people. In my opinion "that" should be used for animals, except maybe owls -- because the "who" all the time. Sorry! Unless I'm restricted to a style book, as I was when working for The Hour newspaper, I make my own rules whenever there's a conflict or questionable interpretation. The main objective, I think, should be to preserve clarity in language as well as common sense.