Ask a Scholar: That vs. Who

David J. Rothman

Dear Ask a Scholar,

Can you tell me when it started, and how widespread the practice is, that sentences like the following became the norm in literature:

I’m pretty sure it was Bob that hit him with the rock.

instead of:

I’m pretty sure it was Bob who hit him with the rock.

I even have a 1985 edition Bible that has more than one scripture in it that is similar to this. One, in Luke 10:37a, reads thusly:

He said: ‘The one that acted mercifully toward him.’

All my life I was taught that a person is a “who,” not a “that.” When did this all begin? This is not the first I have seen this, but I just don’t like seeing it in the Bible. I just was curious about its beginnings, if you could help here. Thanks.

Answered by David J. Rothman, Director of the Poetry Concentration with an Emphasis on Form in the MFA Program at Western State Colorado University and Lecturer in the Program for Writing and Rhetoric at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Dr. Rothman graduated cum laude from Harvard University and received his Ph.D. in English with a concentration in Poetics from New York University. He has taught courses in literature and writing at the University of Utah, Zhejiang University (People’s Republic of China), New York University, Western State Colorado University, and several secondary schools. His poems and essays appear widely.

Questions of “norms” in grammar, especially English grammar, are complex. While we of course have to be able to speak of such a thing as “English” and of “English Grammar,” it is probably a good idea to keep in mind that language always exceeds such boundaries. Like music, language exists before its rules, which are in general formulated to try to make something that already exists systematically comprehensible. While we need standard histories, such as Albert C. Baugh and Tom Cable’s A History of the English Language (1951, Fifth Edition, Routledge, 2002) and standard reference works, such as Huddleston and Pullum’s The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (2002, reprinted with corrections 2008), we should also recall the lessons of our most gifted historian of English, David Crystal, who writes in The Stories of English (Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press, 2004) that:

No account of the history of English should ignore the whole of the language’s formality range, but the informal levels have been seriously under-represented in the traditional accounts, partly because they have been so much associated with regional dialect speech. (11)

Crystal is very careful to emphasize that he in no way means to denigrate Standard English, but rather that if we really want to understand the history of the language—of any language—we have to be able to account for non-standard usage as well, which is different from merely correcting it, even when it needs correcting (as it certainly does in formal student writing; I am about to spend hours doing so myself!).

To begin with then, the grammars all definitely make it clear that in Standard English, a person is a “who,” not a “that” or a “which.” As Huddleston and Pullum point out in Chapter 5, §17.3 (497-99), identifiable persons always take the personal pronoun. As they suggest, however, this quality is not completely limited to people, but can extend to certain animals, e.g.:

The dog had lost his/her/its bone.

Or, more relevantly here:

The dog who/which had lost his/her/its bone was barking.

As they suggest, the determining factor on the choice of which pronoun one uses (personal vs. impersonal), which the example of the dog strongly suggests, is that the personal pronoun “indicates a greater amount of interest or empathy” (498).

This is where it gets interesting. The fascinating point is that questions of “interest or empathy” as they manifest in English sentences are something of a moving target, presenting many cases that allow choice (my examples here merely flesh out and expand on Huddleston and Pullum). For example, one can say, without violating the norms of Standard English, either:

The dog which had lost her bone was barking.


The dog who had lost her bone was barking.

Both are correct but have slightly different connotations. Indeed, all of the following sentences are correct within the paradigm (for the sake of simplicity I have used just one gender to limit the number of examples):

The dog which had lost its bone was barking.
The dog which had lost her bone was barking.
The dog who had lost her bone was barking.

I have arranged the sentences so that they move from the least personal to the most – but all will work. Notice that once a noun becomes personalized in this way, however, we don’t seem to be able to re-impersonalize it, so the following sentence appears not to work:

The dog who had lost its bone was barking.

As Huddleston and Pullum also point out, we can do the same kind of thing for human babies if we do not know the sex (a fact reinforced by the etymology of “infant,” i.e. from in- “not, opposite of” + fans, participle of fari, “speak” [from the Online Etymological Dictionary]). In other words, as soon as beings acquire the faculty of speech (or perhaps certain other characteristics, faculties we recognize as analogous to it, as with our hungry dog above), we recognize them by rendering them ersatz “persons” and therefore deserving of personal pronouns.

So, the boundary between “which” or “that” and “who” is not absolute, depending on a number of considerations, even in Standard English. There are other complications, in the fact that there is slippage between personal pronouns and personal relative pronouns, both in gender and in number (again, see Huddleston and Pullum for many examples). For example, a ship can be “she” or “it” but remains “which” in either case (italics indicate possible correct choices):

The ship, which/who was on her/its maiden voyage, was behind schedule.

Similar things happen with aggregate nouns, e.g. “committee,” which never assumes a gender in English (as it would in the more highly inflected languages from which English developed), but can be referred to as either “who” or “which” depending on how one conceives the number of the aggregate noun. Huddleston and Pullum demonstrate this convincingly with the two following Standard English sentences:

The committee, who haven’t yet completed their report, must be in disarray.
The committee, which hasn’t yet completed its report, must be in disarray.

The following sentences, however, won’t fly, as they ascribe gender to a collective noun:

The committee, which hasn’t yet completed his report, must be in disarray.
The committee, who hasn’t yet completed his report, must be in disarray. (This last option is not in Huddleston and Pullum, but is my extrapolation.)

There is far more to say about how all of this is working, but the larger point seems clear enough. The fact is that there is slippage in Standard English between personal and impersonal relative pronouns, depending on a number of factors including connotation, number, gender and other factors. My own guess is that much of this slippage developed over time as English lost the clarity of referentiality that comes with more specific inflections (especially, in this case, noun inflections), which exist in all the languages that feed into it.

Given all of this, is it any wonder that relatively inexperienced writers might lose their way on occasion in the thicket of fine distinctions between personal and impersonal pronouns? For while the fundamental rule holds true – that persons require personal pronouns – the choices can become bewildering at times, as the relative pronouns that we might use—who, which, that—seem to attach themselves willingly, indeed promiscuously, to all sorts of nouns, depending on the grammatical context and the connotation. The mills of Standard English grind exceedingly fine. So, we should certainly teach our students the relative pronoun rules as rules, but perhaps if we also show them this slippage we can make it clear where the confusions come from in the first place.

As for the history, the questioner has more or less answered the question. He or she may not like seeing such slippage in the Bible, especially in the story of the Good Samaritan, but it is there as early as the King James version of 1611, where the verse, in which the lawyer correctly answers Jesus that it was the Good Samaritan who treated the victim of thieves as a neighbor, reads: “And he said, He that shewed mercy on him.” Even in this chapter, the King James uses the impersonal pronoun a number of times where we would generally now use the personal, e.g. Verse 16:

He that heareth you heareth me; and he that despiseth you despiseth me; and he that despiseth me despiseth him that sent me.

As for the causes of this: they might lie in some choice about how to translate the original; they might lie in historical practice of the time in this type of context; there might be another explanation. In any event, the practice is quite old. The antiquity and the authority of the examples only reinforces my initial observation, that as students and teachers of such a rich and complex language as English, we are probably at our best when we maintain a multi-layered, simultaneous consciousness of appropriate standards, historical development, and the underlying, chaotic vitality of words.

* * *

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