Word Choice – Who Versus That

Hilary’s question: “Please discuss the use of ‘who’ versus ‘that’ in a sentence.  For example, in the sentence — There are many other participants in the videos that also share their stories about welding as a career of choice — I think it should be ‘who also share their stories.’ ”

BizWritingTip response:  This is a grammar rule people have been fighting over for some time.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary says, “The notion that ‘that’ should not be used to refer to persons is without foundation; such use is entirely standard.” In addition, writers such as Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Carlyle, and Dickens often used “that” in their works when referring to people. However, many people have been taught to use “that” for things and “who” for people.

I like the way the Gregg Reference Manual outlines the rule. Use “that” if you are referring to a class, species or group of people. Use “who” when referring to specific people.

Example

He is the only staff member who is willing to work on Saturday. (You are thinking of specific staff members.)
She is the kind of person that you can rely on. (“Person” is used generically.)

Sometimes, the decision on which word to use will be subjective based on the writer’s wish to emphasize points.

With regard to the reader’s question, my choice would have been “who” as I believe the words “participants in the videos” refer to specific individuals: There are many other participants in the videos who also share their stories about welding as a career of choice.

Note: I will deal with the word “that” and when you can eliminate it in the next BizWritingTip.

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