Pronouns: ‘that’ and ‘who’ and people and animals

Use ‘who’ and ‘whom’ for people (and for words that describe people)

This seems obvious but more and more writers are using that as the relative pronoun to describe people. I have two theories why this happening:

  • partly because people are worried about misusing either who or whom and look for another word to use instead
  • and partly because Microsoft Word’s grammar checker does not recognise words that describe humans and does not pick up the issue when the tool is used.

For example:

  • The politician that was being interviewed by the journalist didn’t answer convincingly.

A politician is a human being – and so the correct relative pronoun should be either who or whom (in this case who):

  • The politician who was being interviewed by the journalist didn’t answer convincingly.

But Microsoft Word doesn’t see any problems with treating politicians as things; no wavy green lines or query windows will come up with this sentence.

Remember to celebrate humanity: use who, not that and which, for humans – for politicians, for journalists, for students, for students, for readers, for writers, for parents, for children, for bloggers … even for grammarians. Any time the noun you use describes people, who and whom (not that or which) should be the relative pronouns that you use.

Should ‘who’ or ‘that’ be used for animals?

What pronoun you use to describe an animal is one of those grey areas: sometimes you can treat animals as things, and use that and which and sometimes you can treat animals as people and use who. It all depends on the context. The more the animal is being likened to humans, the more likely you are to use who. My rule of thumb: if the animal has a name, use who.

  • Mrs K, who is hungry, is working hard to gain my attention.
  • The cat, which is hungry, is working hard to gain my attention

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Photos: cat © Danill Peshkov/

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