Grammar Tip – Who Versus That

BizWritingTip reader: “I am getting frustrated when I hear ‘that’ instead of ‘who.’ Am I wrong? For example, ‘I know the people that are in the English class.’ Is this correct?”

BizWritingTip response: This is one of those subjective grammar points that has also become debatable. Back in the days of the dinosaurs, I learned “who” and “that” can both be used when referring to persons. However, you use “who” when you mean an individual and “that” when you mean a group or a type.

Examples
He is the only person who can handle this situation. (We are talking about an individual.)
She is the writer who pointed out the error. (An individual)
He is the type of manager that believes everyone should work overtime. (We are referring to a group of people that don’t have lives.)
He is on a team that never wins. (A group)
He works for an organization that is highly regarded. (A group)

However, more and more writers are using these words interchangeably. When you use the grammar check in Microsoft Word, it accepts both versions:

He is the only person that can handle this situation.
He is the only person who can handle this situation.

Frankly, I intend to stick to the original rule. Therefore, I would say if you are referring to the individuals who are in the English class, write it this way: “I know the people who are in the English class.”

However, if you mean the group of people in the class, write: “I know the people that are in the English class.”

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