We hear a lot of gram­mar myths grow­ing up. Some come from our par­ents, some come from our teach­ers, and some come from Eng­lish experts. One of those myths is the idea that you must nev­er use “that” as a rel­a­tive pro­noun when refer­ring to peo­ple.

The so-called rule goes some­thing like: use “who” for peo­ple and use “that” (or “which”) for things.

The prob­lem with this line of think­ing is that “that” has not only been used for cen­turies to refer to peo­ple, but also it’s filled that pur­pose much longer than “who” has. Con­sid­er this:

That has been the stan­dard rel­a­tive pro­noun for about eight hun­dred years and can be used in speak­ing of per­sons, ani­mals, or things. Four hun­dred years ago, which became pop­u­lar as a sub­sti­tute for the rel­a­tive that and was used for per­sons, ani­mals, and things. Three hun­dred years ago, who also became pop­u­lar as a rel­a­tive. It was used in speak­ing of per­sons and ani­mals but not of things.” —A Dic­tio­nary of Con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can Usage (p. 555):

Even the King James Bible — now over 400 years old — is lit­tered with uses of “that” as a rel­a­tive pro­noun for peo­ple. Here’s one I came across a cou­ple of days ago:

And the Lord thy God will put all these curs­es upon thine ene­mies, and on them that hate thee, which per­se­cut­ed thee.” (Deut. 30:7)

Actu­al­ly, that’s bonus ref­er­ence because it also uses “which” instead of “who”. :)

I per­son­al­ly pre­fer using “who” because it sounds bet­ter to me, but that’s all it is: a pref­er­ence.

About Kim Siever

I am a copy­writer and copy­ed­i­tor. I blog on writ­ing and social media tips most­ly, but I some­times throw in my thoughts about run­ning a small busi­ness. Fol­low me on Twit­ter at @hotpepper.

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