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.]

Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant for more than 30 years. He may be best known for his headline “Speak Spanish [French, German, etc.] Like a Diplomat!” This familiar series of ads sold spectacular numbers of recorded foreign language lessons for Audio-Forum, generating revenues that total in the tens of millions of dollars. In the process, the ad achieved the status of an industry classic. Don’s work is mentioned in three major college advertising textbooks, and examples of his promotions are cited in the books Million Dollar Mailings (1992) and World's Greatest Direct Mail Sales Letters (1996). In a column in Advertising Age, his name was included in a short list of direct-marketing “superstars.” He has a parallel career as a writer on language and wordplay. His celebration of spoonerisms, Cruel and Unusual Puns (Dell, 1991), received rave reviews and quickly went into a second printing. His second book was Acronymania (Dell, 1993). Recently, Don retired from full-time copywriting in order to focus on other interests, including his passion for “recreational linguistics.” He is at work on a new book in that genre. He is a regular contributor to the magazine Word Ways and writes “The Language Perfectionist,” a weekly column on grammar and usage, for Early to Rise. Don is author of The Versatile Freelancer,an e-book from American Writers and Artists, Inc. (AWAI) that shows copywriters – and almost anyone – how to diversify their careers into consulting, training, critiquing, and speaking.