Who Versus That

Theresa’s question: “I wonder if it is acceptable to use the word ‘that’ when referring to people. Usually this happens when referring to a collective noun. An example I find very jarring is the official apology about residential schools given by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.   He states, ‘It has taken extraordinary courage for the thousands of survivors that have come forward to speak publicly about the abuse they suffered.’

“It would seem to me that the word ‘who’ should be used. What are your thoughts?”

BizWritingTip response: I was taught years ago that who is used for people and that for things. But guess what? Times have changed. Now both who and that are used when referring to persons. Usewho when you are referring to specific people and that when referring to a category or type of person.

Examples
He is a manager who treats his employees well. (The manager is a specific person.)
He is the type of consultant that I would hire again. (category)*
She is the one who should be going. (specific)
Of all the people that should attend, I decided to send her. (category)
I am shocked by professionals that use improper grammar. (category)
I am shocked by one of our managers who uses improper grammar. (specific person)

Therefore, although it does sound awkward, Prime Minister Harper’s statement is correct.

*Yes, you could remove the word that from this sentence. Grammatically, that is the correct word to use. In the interest of brevity, you could – correctly – remove it: He is the type of consultant I would hire again.

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