Rosky Legal Education

Just in time for Halloween, this month’s tip will guide you through a key grammatical distinction between humans and creatures like zombies and ghouls. The question is this: are you required to use who to modify people, as in people who purchased the stock, or is it also acceptable to use that, as in people that purchased the stock? And can you use who to modify inhuman creatures like companies and zombies?
Read on for the answer, and happy trick-or-treating!
Until the next tip…
Dianne Rosky
Who dat?

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, committee and team. 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 and who.
As for the zombies and ghouls who/that ring your doorbell on Thursday, just give them lots of candy.

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Sounds, the Pronunciation App
Recommended resource

If you love working and playing with words, visit
Sin and Syntax, an “online salon for those who love wicked good prose.” The site is full of insights into the provocative, fun side of writing. (Yes, there is one.)

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