Who That? Rules of Usage (and other myths)


When referring to a person in writing, most of us were taught to use “who,” as in She was the girl who wore the red dress. In this sentence, who is referring to a person, she. So you would not use “that” to reference a person, as in, She was the girl that wore the red dress. Makes sense, right?

However, the rule gets more complicated when referring to a class or group of people. Which of the following sentences is correct?

  1. Men who buy sports cars receive more speeding tickets.
  2. Men that buy sports cars receive more speeding tickets.

If you guessed #1 you would be correct.
But if you guessed #2, you would also be correct.

According to any number of style guides, it is perfectly acceptable to use that when referring to a group or class of people. The use of “who” is, as the English language goes, a relatively recent occurrence. The Grammar Girl, my personal hero, says that Chaucer and Shakespeare used “that” to refer to people, and the “who” rule didn’t creep into our sometimes mythical rules until the early 1900s.

Note, however, that in the previous example, “Men” refers to a class of people, an indeterminate, general group of men, not a specific man or men. If it read, The man that drove the sports car received a speeding ticket, it would still be okay, but according to style guides, less common. To be on the safe side, in this instance, refer to the specific man as “who.”


The reason there might be confusion as to the correct use of “who” or “that” is that our most commonly used style guides, MLA and APA, have conflicting guidelines. MLA says that when referring to general groups of people, both “that” and “who” can be used. In the following examples, either use would be acceptable in MLA:

She is the kind of person who/that is always cheerful.

I would like to find a husband who/that is a good cook.

However, when a specific person is referred to in formal writing, the preferred use is “who”:

The boy who lives next door plays football.

The woman who drives the school bus is a jazz singer.

However, if you are using APA style guide in your writing, APA requires the use of “who” when referring to people. For APA, “that” is only used for nonhumans and things:

She is the kind of person who/that is always cheerful.

I would like to find a husband who/that is a good cook.

The rats that completed the task successfully were rewarded. (Rats = nonhuman.)

Final Thoughts

Through the centuries, the English language has often adapted to common usage, and with the advent of style guides for academic writing, rules were put in place to suit different fields of study and styles of writing. But remember, rules and styles are two different things. What may be a rule in one mode of writing may be different in another. Sometimes, rules are a myth, and sometimes rules are simply a preference or trend. When writing for high school or college, if in doubt, always ask your instructor for their preference. In my book, the person who is grading is always right.

(image from Oxford Dictionary Online)



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