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People who or People that?

By Judy Vorfeld

Do you find it dif­fi­cult to know when to use “who” vs. “that”? These two words are rel­a­tive pro­nouns that tie together groups of words to nouns or other pronouns.

Let’s take this sen­tence: “The run­ner who exer­cises reg­u­larly usu­ally does the best.”

“Who” con­nects the sub­ject, run­ner, to the verb “exercises.”

Many peo­ple will say “The run­ner that exer­cises usu­ally does the best.”

Here’s the thing: “who” (and its forms) refers to peo­ple. “That” usu­ally refers to things, but it can refer to peo­ple in a gen­eral sense (like a class or type of per­son: see “run­ner.”). Purdue Online Writing Lab says, “When refer­ring to peo­ple, both that and who can be used in infor­mal lan­guage. ‘That’ may be used to refer to the char­ac­ter­is­tics or abil­i­ties of an indi­vid­ual or a group of peo­ple.… However, when speak­ing about a par­tic­u­lar per­son in for­mal lan­guage, who is preferred.”

That said, many peo­ple and some respected ref­er­ences pre­fer “peo­ple that,” and it’s not wrong. Think Chaucer. Shakespeare. Dickens.

Bottom line: be consistent.

English Plus

Guide to Grammar & Writing

Some Special Uses of Relative Pronouns in Restrictive Clauses: Purdue OWL


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