The Language Perfectionist: “Who That?”

A reader of this column asked about the proper use of who and that.

Here’s an often-cited quip by George Bernard Shaw: “The government who robs Peter to pay Paul can always depend on the support of Paul.”

Shaw is regarded as a skilled writer. But is his use of who correct? Not according to language guru Charles Harrington Elster. In his useful and entertaining style guide What in the Word?, Elster writes: “It is a grave sin to use who of things, as in ‘the company who.'”

Thus, when referring to corporations, industries, marching bands, animals, plants, stones, and other nonhuman entities, always use that.

Now consider these examples:

  • “I have a good feeling that he’s an actor that can do well given the strength of the script.”
  • “The surgeon that performs the operation should warn you that after the procedure you will experience both discomfort and bruising….”
  • Newspaper headline: “CEOs That Rock”

Several authoritative sources I consulted insist that the above uses of that are entirely acceptable. And after all, even Judy Garland sang about “the man that got away.”

But in this instance, I disagree with the experts. To my eye and ear, that in reference to people has an awkward and inappropriate effect. It reduces humans to the status of inanimate objects.

So my advice is to stick with who for your fellow humans, and that for everything else.

[Ed Note: For more than three decades, Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant. He is author of The Versatile Freelancer, an e-book that shows writers and other creative professionals how to diversify their careers into speaking, consulting, training, and critiquing.]
  • John F. Tashjian

    Dear Mr. Hauptman:

    I heartily agree with most of what you’d stated in this particular column. I certainly made the same point when I was tutoring English, and ESL students, at my local community college. There’s just one minor difference that I, personally, made when giving this particular advice.

    for some reason that escapes me to this day, I always used the word “which”, as a relative pronoun, for flora and fauna (e.g. the dogs and cats which I have had). I may well be the exception that/who proves the rule, but it was simply the way I learned it.

    Many thanks for your insight.

    John F. Tashjian