« Sharpening the quills | Main | They're testing me »

Equivalence of "that" and "who"

With regret, I must differ with Professor Anatoly Liberman, who, writing on language at the OUPblog, perpetuates the myth that the pronoun that must never be used in reference to human beings, for whom who is the only appropriate pronoun. At least he presents this as merely his own opinion, but it’s still an ill-advised preference.

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know how frequently I have swatted that particular fly. And if you attend those annual holiday performances of Handel’s Messiah and do not flinch at “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light,” then you should have a sense of just how long that has been an acceptable alternative to who.

Professor Liberman teases at something interesting when he remarks that “according to some dictum, that should be differentiated from which.”* He’s not quite on target there, but I suspect that someone keen to regulate usage, aware that which refers to inanimate objects and non-human beings, concluded that that must logically function in the same way. And thus a superstition was born. You need pay no attention to it.

As Thoreau said, “Any fool can make a rule, and every fool will follow it.”


Follow-up: A couple of days ago I expressed my chagrin that someone had allowed a “’Tis the season” headline into The Sun. (No, no miscreant was identified, to be lashed to the mast and flogged round the fleet, but only because I’m too soft-hearted for my own good.)

That same day, the inane annual AP story on the price tag of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” popped up at Fortunately, it was scotched before making it into the print edition.

I’ve often wondered how badly an AP reporter has to cheese off an editor to be assigned the “Twelve Days of Christmas” price tag story. “We’re going to give you a choice: waterboarding or the ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’ story.” Waterboarding would be less humiliating.


*No, we’re not going to plunge into the restrictive/nonrestrictive swamp just now.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:09 AM | | Comments (17)


Should you consider a trip into the restrictive/nonrestrictive swamp you might consider consulting Jonathan Swift's Proposal for Correcting, Improving, and Ascertaining the English Tongue.

I counted something like 40 restrictive whiches.

Just give us the result. Did the price tag increase or decrease, and by what percentage?

I respectfully disagree with the gentleman from Maryland. Then again, I do think the distinction is minor, and I don't get too worked up about it.

I strongly support the gentleman's proposals regarding the holidays, and with that, I yield the balance of my time.

While I agree that either are correct, I write for an international audience and to make sure I am less likely to be misunderstood, I use "who" instead of "that" with people. I also don't use a nonrestrictive "which". Again, on the off-chance that someone might misunderstand it.

Then again, I'm not writing literature, I'm writing software instructions.

@ Thomas
Just to get philosophical: it doesn't matter what we're writing, does it? Whether it's software instructions or fiction, the context should tell the reader what or who we're talking about. I'm not sure if there's really a difference, though I'm up for being wrong about this.

Still waiting for someone to step forward and say that the AP Stylebook knows English better than Bishop Andrewes and the boys. Waiting ... waiting ...

There are sentences which are genuinely (and dangerously) ambiguous if written with restrictive which, as in this example proposed by Noetica at Languagehat and slightly modified by me:

Do not dismantle any munitions which contain TNT, which are marked with a red warning label, which have an identification number beginning with 9 or which show signs of rust.

The second relative clause is set off by commas. Is it restrictive or not? You can't tell, because all but the first and last clauses in a disjunction with three or more terms are set off by commas. If it's non-restrictive, then one might assume that a red label is a mere marker of TNT; but if it's restrictive, red-label munitions must not be dismantled even if they don't contain ... BOOM!

Changing all the whiches to thats forces the restrictive interpretation; putting the second clause in parentheses forces the non-restrictive interpretation.

(Noetica uses the Oxford comma, so his version did not have the third clause. Don't get me started on how everyone should use Oxford commas, because no one can possibly misunderstand them, and how the refusal of American newspapers to adopt them makes about as much sense as tapping home base with the bat.)

here are sentences which are genuinely (and dangerously) ambiguous if written with restrictive which

Sure. No argument. That doesn't mean that all uses of it are bad. It just means you have to be careful when you write.

(Eliminating all but the first "which" also fixes the problem, by the way.)

Sorry - that "anonymous" at 3:00 PM was me.

I've never thought the who/that nitpickers were modeling their peeving on the which/that distinction; I think the same nice people (elementary-school teachers?) who now think it's an abomination to call a pet "it" -- never mind an infant -- decided it must be rude to use "that" of a person, and simply began teaching the rule. (I"Who" and "that" aren't strictly equivalent, of course -- they tend to show up in different contexts -- but the point is, "that" is not wrong.)

@Faldone, I'm sure you know you don't have to go to Swift for restrictive whiches; just check out Strunk's "Elements" in its pre-E.B. White form.

Bucky, this story also appeared on one of the evening news broadcasts, and the price was definitely up (I'm thinking the total was something like $90,000 and change). The six gold rings rose more than any other element, but I did not pay close enough attention to tell you the percentages.

As far as "Messiah" (which has no article preceding it) is concerned, I defer to poetic license on the part of Messrs Jennings and Handel. Until Christopher Hogwood discovers an authentic manuscript in which "that" is replaced by "Who," I don't give a tinker's dam. Otherwise, I use "who" for people unless there seems to be a good reason not to do so. Jeez, Louise - the season for the picking of nits is always upon us.


Yes, actually, it does matter. Technical writing is highly artificial language, especially when you are writing for non-native speakers. When you are talking about the same item, the same term must be used each and every time. No deviation is allowed. Metaphors must be as plain and unabiguous as possible when they can't be avoided. On/in/under require special care.

So, yes, I believe the type of writing matters.

As a humorous aside, if reading instructions don't put you to sleep in minutes, there's something wrong with you.

Yes, generally speaking it matters because the purpose and audience for tech writing and for fiction are very different. I was only wondering about the who/that distinction: in any writing situation, can't "that" refer to people?

And yeah, reading instructions for fun is probably evidence of some sort of problem. But poorly translated instructions can be fun...

@Dahlink - thank you. I hadn't thought about gold; that would have driven it up. I was focusing on the goose shortage.

Bucky and Dahlink, I just read that the price is $23,439 if each gift is only given once. This includes minimum wage for the MilkMaids.

The cost of online shopping, the article claims, would be $34,336. (Exact websites are not identified.)

Repeating previously-given gifts each day would run the price up to $96,824.


Non-native speakers of English, and a lot of native speakers, were taught "the rules" of that/which and that/who. Therefore, those are the constructions they will expect. While those rules aren't exactly rules, as Mr McIntyre has pointed out, anything at all that might possibly interfere with comprehension is avoided. There are a lot of things that aren't wrong that we tend to avoid just because a person is more likely to understand the instructions when certain constructions are used consistently.

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Verification (needed to reduce spam):

About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
Baltimore Sun Facebook page

Most Recent Comments
Sign up for FREE local news alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for local news text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
Stay connected