Submitted by jinmvanb  •  May 23, 2006

that vs. who

It seems like it happens more and more. Few [TV] reporters use phrases such as: . . . after talking to the local people that work in that plant, . . .etc., etc. Why the use of the ‘that’ instead of ‘who’ as I was taught for the correct grammar. Another one: . . . it was John that broke the news about the bribery . . . etc., etc. Is it an “exceptional” rules that when reporting (hence, verbal statement as opposed to written) it is acceptable the use of ‘that’?

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There are two differences between "that" and "who":

1) "That" can be used to refer to *either* a person or an object; "who" can only be used to refer to a person.

That's the obvious one, but there's another.

2) "Who," depending on your use of commas, can be used either restrictively or non-restrictively; "that" can only be used restrictively.

For example, you can say either:

A. "All the plant workers who wanted raises went on strike," to mean that, some proportion of the plant workers wanted raises, and all of those went on strike, or

B. "All the plant workers, who wanted raises, went on strike" to specify in addition that *all* the plant workers wanted raises.

You can't do that with "that". While "All the plant workers that wanted raises went on strike" is grammatical, and means the same as sentence A, "All the plant workers, that wanted raises, went on strike" is ungrammatical.

Back when I was a technical writer, we were actually instructed to use "that," insead of "who," when we could.

The reason? It's easy for commas to get accidentally inserted left out in production, or missed or imagined by the reader. You don't want to use sentences whose meaning can be changed so easily if you can avoid it.

(We rarely were writing about people, so the actual distinction was between "that" and "which." But it's the same issue.)

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I couldn't find any document that supports Avrom's explanation. It isn't about punctuation. Moreover, I am beginning to be influenced by the thoughts of Automator's; that it is a matter of journalism, irrespective to the grammar. I dare say, that it seems that in the journalism, one is "expected" to be a "dualism", all reporting must be grammatically error free, yet no [personal] feeling is allowed and that one must, therefore, "substitute" words here and there. Another case: die Vs. pass away. How often do they use this: . . . it's believed that he "passed away" last week, . . . etc. Instead, . . so and so "died" pending an autopsy, . . . etc.
What I am not sure of, is whether different languages (hence, cultures) follow this same "trend".

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The prescription that "that" should not refer to people is a myth. The word has been used to refer to people for as long as it has been in the language.

By heaven, I'll make a ghost of him that lets me - Hamlet, 1601

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Taking myself back to journalism classes, "that" gives emotional distance and impersonality, compared to "who". It's use is similar to the journalistic tradition of always using "said" for everything attributed to a person. (A source never "states" or "exclaims" in a news story.)

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Avrom, that was an admittedly excellent submission. You could not have worded better what I thought about the "who" versus "that" issue.

Why was "which" not a part of this entanglement?

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Which and Who come from latin (quius and quo). The qu of Latin turned into a hw in Old English, which is wh today. Just like how the English word "head" comes from Latin "caput" (Latin c-sound --> English h-sound). On the other hand, "that" is a more originally English word (OE "thaet" but with a thorn instead of a th), other Germanic languages like Dutch have words like "dat" since English thorn often gets realized as d in other Germanic languages. But anyway, that and who are different in that only "who" can refer to people and not things. However, that and which are the same, just different origins.

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No, AO, you're wrong.

"which" and "who" are cognate with the Latin words. They are all from the Proto-Indo-European root "*kwo-". But the English words are not derived from the Latin words.

"head" is from the PIE root "*kaput-", and it is cognate with Latin "caput", but is not derived from it.

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Thanks for the clarification, John.

At any rate, my point was mainly that just because we have two different words for something, doesn't mean they necessarily have to mean different things or be used differently. Modern English is loaded with synonyms because of its various source languages, so sometimes we have two words for the same thing not because we have different nuances in meaning but because we have two different origins of words for that meaning.

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I second to Kurt. Avrom explained it well. Unfortunately, I got an X (wrong) when I answered "that" during an exam. I was taught well in grammar during my tertiary years and got suddenly taken aback with the rejection of the use of "that" after relating to "people".

I inquired to the erudite who put an "X", she said (as what others are probably being taught of or one can read in some grammar books) that "that" are only used to refer to things (non-living) and not to persons/people. Use of "which" is explicit.

I believe "English" is an art. Why "has got" was accepted in grammar? English sometimes is as complicated as "Life". It has standards and flexibility issues as it is an "art".

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Exactly John..."That" as a pronoun or as used in a relative clause (restrictively) to refer to "people" is CORRECT.


. . after talking to the local people that work in that plant, . . .etc., etc.

Why the use of the 'that' instead of 'who' as I was taught for the correct grammar.

Another one: . . . it was John that broke the news about the bribery . . . etc., etc.

Is it an "exceptional" rules that when reporting (hence, verbal statement as opposed to written) it is acceptable the use of 'that'?

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