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Many times we use who as the pronoun when we refer to people. Some writers insist that the word that cannot be used to refer to people. For instance, they do not want to say, “Those that file their income tax returns on time are patriotic.” They’d rather use who: “Those who file their income tax returns on time are patriotic.”

Are they correct?

It’s OK to use who for people, but in situations where the people are not specifically named, it is acceptable to use that. For example: The lawyers that study more usually win their cases.

But we would write, “The Cruz sisters, who have enrolled in French lessons, are doing well.”

Here’s more from Fowler’s book:

As a general rule, it’s a good idea to use “who” or “whom” to refer to people, and “who/whom” is always acceptable. It is, however, acceptable (and has been, for centuries) to refer to people with “that” when the reference is vague or to a person or persons that are representative of a class of people. Thus, “Students that study all night are apt to fail their tests” would be acceptable because because students, in that sentence, represents a kind of student. As soon as the term becomes specific, however, the that would no longer be acceptable. Thus, “Wooster students, who tend to study throughout the course of the semester, tend to do very well on these exams” or “Wooster students who graduated before 1988 took four Liberal Arts courses their first year.”

Authority: The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage edited by R.W. Burchfield. Clarendon Press: Oxford, England. 1996. Used with the permission of Oxford University Press.

Photo credit: Design You Trust

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