Saying “that” instead of “who,” and other grammatical questions

Is it correct to use the pronoun “that” to refer to a person or persons? The discussion began in an unrelated entry, so I’ve now moved it into its own entry here. The discussion then branches off into other questions of grammar and usage.

In the entry on John Tyner, Kilroy M. wrote:

On precisely this point: I have conservative friends that constantly ridicule theatre, high art and academics as a group etc. I reply by describing this as a form of cultural Bolshevism. It’s over the top, I know, but they never get it. To them, apparently going to the Opera makes one a lefty. What I try to illustrate to them is that their attitude is itself a form of civilisational surrender. Conservatives have ceded the high cultural ground and allowed mediocre minds to take over, among other things, the universities and the media.

LA replied:

On a side issue, may I point out a grammatical error that you and many people make today.

“I have conservative friends that constantly ridicule theatre … “

The pronoun following a person or persons should be “who,” not “that”:

“I have conservative friends who constantly ridicule theatre … ”

posted November 26

Kilroy M. writes:

That’s a perennial problem these days—as demonstrated, I am guilty of this. It’s the product of bad habits that are allowed to flourish by lazy teachers of English at school. If you were to ask me about the correct grammar, of course I would know. The force of common usage, however, has allowed these mistakes to go “mainstream.” It reminds me of your earlier debates at VFR on how commonly misspelled names are now no longer considered erroneous.

Anita K. writes:

Using “that” in relation to persons is perfectly okay.

I’ll grant that “who” sounds more likely, but “that” is fine.

(How about the song popularized by Judy Garland: “The man that got away..”.. ?!)


A faithful reader and self-styled “warden of English”:-)

LA replies:

Adducing popular songs and slogans, or indeed any popular usage, as support for arguably incorrect usage cannot carry the argument, since the very reason incorrect usage needs to be combated is that it has become common and popular to a degree. It is like saying that since sin is widely practiced, sin is ok.

By the way, perhaps undercutting my own point, I notice that the King James Bible frequently uses “that” to refer to a person.

Paul K. writes:

According to, you are correct. In fact, several grammar sites all agree on this point, although one suggests the use of “that” when referring to a person is off-key rather than incorrect.

Rule 1.

Who refers to people. That and which refer to groups or things.


Anya is the one who rescued the bird.

Lokua is on the team that won first place.

She belongs to an organization that specializes in saving endangered species.

I am not an authority on grammar, having only recently learned to use “that” and “which” properly.

Thomas Bertonneau writes:

I have a PhD in Comparative Literature (UCLA, 1990), and have taught in English departments since the mid-1980s. I often teach freshman-level composition courses and must address grammar issues whenever I do so.

The relative pronoun who is for people. It is for people not only when the direct antecedent is an actual person (Bob or Mary), but also when the direct antecedent belongs to a category that can only contain people. An example of the latter would be: “The pilot who flew the plane had twenty years experience.” My Microsoft Word grammar-check program is badly programmed. It would mark the “who” in the foregoing sentence as incorrect. But it is the program that is incorrect.

A related prose-deformity is the substitution, increasingly common, of the word humans for the word people. (This happens consistently in the plural, less so when the singular is involved.) My undergraduates do this inveterately. The substitution always gives me the creepy feeling that I’m reading something written by an unassimilated alien—an outer-space, man-from-Mars, alien.

As I believe firmly that nothing lacks meaning, I suggest that the contemporary predominance of that over who and the substitution of the word humans for the word people are signs of a pervasive dehumanization.

LA replies:

I use “humans” occasionally, but when I do so my intent is always ironic, as a way of characterizing the depersonalized, leftist view of things.

For example, I wrote the other day, in the entry on the Swedish mass-miscegenation video:

The ultimate vision of liberalism, I have always said, is of a borderless world with six billion naked humans of all races copulating and consuming.

November 27

Rick Darby writes:

As a person that herds words for a living and as a blogger, I say “who” should be used in connection with people (never, never, “persons,” please). Gramatically, “that” and “who” serve the same function and can both be understood, but phrases such as “people that” and “those that” convey an impersonal feeling. It’s one more way in which the fine distinctions our language has bequeathed us are being ironed out as English becomes vaguer and blunter. Another example is the failure to distinguish between “disinterested” and “uninterested,” now widely used as synonyms.

Thomas Bertonneau writes:

As there is a discussion in progress about lapses of grammar, I might add one or two further observations. My students (going back two decades) are massively dependent on the pronoun of the third-person plural, they, which they use as the subsequent of the singular in all its forms: he, she, and it. They write sentences on this defective model: “A person was hit by a car while crossing the street because they didn’t look both ways.” A student of popular culture, I have rarely caught this error in written or spoken discourse (in radio, film, or television) before 1960. After 1980 it becomes common, almost standard in the spoken language; in print-journalism it is also rampant.

Again, I take the mistake as non-trivial, as having a meaning, or maybe more than one. The distinction between the One and the Many is fundamental to logic. Habitual confusion of the One and the Many suggests a failure to establish logical habits, or to cultivate reason, as strictly construed. (If the murderers of Laius were many, says Oedipus, then the murderer of Laius could not have been I, for I am but one.) In English, the pronoun he is the grammatically ordinary back-reference for a person or someone or anyone in a sentence. But feminists, who long ago infiltrated the schools of education, have harped for decades on the supposed “sexism” of normative grammar, including the use of he for an unspecified grammatical person. Student reliance on they (and them and their) is partly due to logical confusion, I am sure; but it is also partly due to feminist carping and to fear of feminist censure that such carping inspires. The causes converge in the result—ungrammatical constructions that assimilate all singulars to the plural.

I believe that the assimilation of singulars to plurals is related to another odd linguistic habit that I observe in undergraduates. I refer to the unwillingness to make ordinary predications except where the writers or speakers can refer such predications to other people, or to an imagined generality. I trace the inability to predicate to a priori fear of predication, which I trace in turn to the massive prohibition on so-called stereotyping in the K-12 curriculum. The term “stereotype,” used nowadays always pejoratively, is really simply a propaganda term for a concept. The ban on stereotypes is a ban on concepts and predicates.

I once had a conversation with a student, who absolutely refused to take a stand on anything, that went something like this:

TEACHER: Okay, tell me something simple and positive about that chair standing alone against the wall under the black board.

STUDENT: What do you mean?

TEACHER: Tell me, in a short sentence, anything about that chair.

STUDENT: Well, people may say …

TEACHER: I’m not interested in people; I want you, all by yourself, to tell me something about that chair.

STUDENT: [Silence]

My inference, which I propose as a general description of North American high-school graduates, is that students are the victims of an epistemologically impoverished education that is coercively collective and conformist and that prevents those inculcated in it from making basic distinctions about reality. The student in the dialogue, incidentally, made another typical error: Using the verb of permission (may) instead of the verb of possibility (might). The verb of possibility has disappeared from undergraduate vocabulary.

LA replies:

On one hand, we do not need metaphysical explanations of why people use “they” to refer to a person; it is simply uncomfortable for people in feminist society to use the male generic pronoun for a person of unspecified sex, or even (things having gone so far) for a person of specified, male sex. . (At VFR I consistently use the male generic pronoun for a person of unspecified sex. I have also shown that there is simply no acceptable alternative to the traditional male generic pronoun; every attempted alternative breaks down.)

On the other hand, Mr. Bertonneau is absolutely correct that the conceptual fuzziness that results from saying “they” instead of “he” goes well beyond its origin in the discomfort with the male generic pronoun, and connects with an overall inability to think which has been deliberately cultivated by our culture and our educational system.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at November 26, 2010 04:00 PM | Send

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