I’ll cut to the chase: in my view, writers should use who
rather than that
to modify humans.
So write this: the lawyer who is handling the case.
Not this: the lawyer that is handling the case.
Full disclosure: it is technically permissible to use that
to modify people. No less an authority than Bryan Garner is perfectly fine with this practice. According to Garner, using that
to refer to humans “has always been good English.” He calls it “a silly fetish to insist that who
is the only relative pronoun that can refer to humans.”
I guess that makes me a fetishist. I find it imprecise, and even a bit dehumanizing, to use that
to modify people. I’m not alone in my fetish—Grammar Girl prefers who
as the relative pronoun for people, and views that
as subtly insulting to the person described, as in the woman that stole my husband
Writers also occasionally err in the other direction, using who
rather than that
to modify non-humans. Notwithstanding the Supreme Court’s treatment of corporations as people, corporations should be treated as non-human for grammatical purposes.
So write this: the company that filed the patent
Not this: the company who filed the patent
The same goes for group nouns like board of directors
. Of course, if you’re referring to a board member, use who
Lastly, here’s a tricky related point. You can (and must) use whose
as a possessive to refer to non-humans, as there is no other elegant choice.
So write this: the company whose stock I bought
Or even this: merger whose approval was criticized
Yes it sounds funny, but it’s correct: whose
is the possessive version of both that
As for the zombies and ghouls who/that ring your doorbell on Thursday, just give them lots of candy.