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To Refer To A Person, Use "Who," Not "That"

English has a lot of pronouns, and most of them refer to people. One that doesn't—despite how it is commonly used—is "that." Although no one will think less of you for using "that" to refer to a person when speaking, doing so in formal writing is a critical error that can impact readers' views toward your text. Instead, always use "who" (or "whom") to refer to people.

Write This, Not That: To Refer To A Person, Use "Who", Not "That" (Example: "Anyone who uses a pronoun to refer to a person should use "who.")

...Not That

Many of the trickier and most common errors in formal writing relate to the written use of informal usages that are generally acceptable in speech. For instance, sentences such as these are common in spoken English:

The hotel manager is the woman that plays shuffleboard with the guests every morning. The researchers agreed to give $5 to anyone that participated in the survey. Marcia is the only board member that the shareholders will ask to return.

However, none of these uses of "that" is actually grammatical, so they should be avoided in formal writing. The standards for written English are higher than those for spoken English, and—particularly in formal contexts—readers are more likely to be able to spot grammatical errors, as well as to judge the writer harshly for not catching them. To ensure that your ideas are judged fairly, you need to avoid writing with informal but incorrect constructions such as "that" in reference to a person.


Note that this rule does not only apply to known individuals. Pronouns that refer to unknown people—including the "one" pronouns ("everyone," "anyone," and "no one") and "nobody"—count as people for this purpose, so "that" cannot be used to refer to these pronouns, either. This is why the usage in the second example is incorrect.


I talk about how to avoid these errors in the next section.


Write This...

In most cases, the easiest way to avoid this error is to always use "who" or "whom" when referring to a person. For instance, the examples above can be correctly written as follows:

The hotel manager is the woman who plays shuffleboard with the guests every morning. The researchers agreed to give $5 to anyone who participated in the survey. Marcia is the only board member whom the shareholders will ask to return.

As for determining whether "who" or "whom" is correct in a given sentence, I can't get into too much detail on the distinction in this post, but here is the general rule: If you can rephrase the pronoun's clause using "he," "she," or "they," then the correct pronoun is "who"; if you can rephrase using "him," "her," or "them," then the correct pronoun is "whom." Let's try this with the three examples:

She plays shuffleboard... (Use "who") They participated in the survey... (Use "who") The shareholders will ask her to return... (Use "whom")

I recognize, however, that the correct pronoun will not always be clear. If you are unsure whether to use "who" or "whom" in a given case, I'd recommend rephrasing the sentence without the pronoun. This can be done for most sentence, and it often results in a more concise sentence. (Do be careful not to alter the meaning of the sentence, of course.) Here are rephrased versions of the example sentences:

The hotel manager plays shuffleboard with the guests every morning. The researchers agreed to give $5 to each survey participant. Of all the board members, the shareholders will ask only Marcia to return.

As you can see, these sentences work at least as well as the versions with "who" or "whom"; I'd argue that the first two are stronger, as they are so much more concise. In general, I'd thus recommend following these steps when writing about people (or during the revision process):

  1. Review the text to find any uses of "that" to refer to people. I like to use the Find tool (CTRL+F on PCs; Command+F on Macs) to track down each use of "that." Remember that it is totally fine to use "that" to refer to objects, concepts, and other things, so many uses will be correct.

  2. Try to rephrase each use without the pronoun. If this results in a concise and clear sentence, you are done; if not, go on to step 3.

  3. Replace "that" in the original sentence with "who" or "whom"—whichever is appropriate.

As a final note, I'd like to point out that this only refers to "that" when it stands alone as a pronoun; this word can be correctly used as a conjunction, adjective, or adverb, even if the resulting phrase refers to a person. Here are some correct uses of "that" as other parts of speech:

That person needs to be warned not to dig near underground cables. (adjective) Roger spent $500 on his stamp collection, but James did not take it that seriously. (adverb) As a well-trained soldier, Kim goes anywhere that she is ordered to go. (conjunction)

You don't need to know the details about parts of speech to fix improper uses of "that," though. All you have to do is try replacing "that" with "who" or "whom"; if this works, then you should leave "who" or "whom" in the sentence—or rephrase without the pronoun, but if it doesn't work, the use of "that" is not a pronoun, so it is correct (unless there is some other error with it, of course).


That's all for this post. I hope you've learned a bit about how to properly use pronouns. Please drop me a comment or an email (info@elevationediting.com) if you have any questions about this or any other grammatical issue. I'm always happy to help. And as always, if you don't want to worry about this issue and want to have a highly skilled professional edit your document, go to ElevationEditing.com and request a quote for your document.

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