Who’s who vs. that’s that

by | Oct 10, 2011 | Blog | 2 comments

Possibly a descendant of Charlotte, who starred in a book and movie?

“Youre invited.”

That message from Who’s Who Entry greets me on my smartphone almost every morning.

Even though this spam message is missing the apostrophe in “You’re,” it uses the word “who” instead of “that.” Kudos for that word choice!

“That” is rapidly replacing “who” as the word of choice to refer to people. So many messages describe “people that….”

Even Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management’s  new marketing video “Think Bravely”  starts with superimposed type reading “It wasn’t one man that went to the moon.”

Considering that this two-year MBA program costs upward of $80,000 now, I’d like to think the program is for people and not inanimate objects.

According to the AP Stylebook, which is the bible for journalists and other writers, “Who is the pronoun used for references to human beings and to animals with a name. It is grammatically the subject (never the object) of a sentence, clause or phrase: The woman who rented the room left the window open.”

At quick glance, The Elements of Style, the classic writing guide by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White, doesn’t even address the differences between “who” and “that.” Instead, the book explains the distinctions between “who” and “whom.”  

Frankly, I’ve given up on policing “who” and “whom.”

However, “who” and “that” are a different story. I care deeply because I’m a “who.” In fact, I care so deeply that I should make a public apology to Charlotte, E.B. White’s spider of Charlotte Web’s fame. I probably have referred to her as “that” instead of “who” in the past. And while I’m at it, I should also apologize to Gustav and his friends Fergus, Ozzie, Royal, Moby and Shasta for referring to them as “dogs that play well with others” instead of “dogs who…..”

Why do so many of us misuse “that” for “who”? Is it sloppiness? Ignorance? Not knowing Abbott and Costello’s skit “Who’s on First?”   Or something else?

Whatever, the practice is rude. It’s disrespectful to fellow human beings.

How would you like to be asked to join a challenge, either a change initiative or another risky endeavor, and be called an inanimate object instead of by name?

Call me a curmudgeon. But recognize I’m a person who has an opinion on this topic.

What about you?


  1. Beverley Moore

    Thank you for this post. I’ve noticed the trend towards ‘that’ instead of ‘who’ too, and it jars every time I read it. As you say, it dehumanises people – and why would you want to do that? Do the writers think it sounds more formal? More correct? Is it a way of distancing the subject from the statement, in the same way as terms such as ‘collateral damage’ skirt around facts we don’t want to think about? If anyone has any idea where the habit has come from I’d love to know.

  2. jimmy midnight

    I, too, am a partisan on behalf of referencing people with pronouns of the “who” class. Nobody wants to be a “that.” Sadly, “that” is apparently taught in journalism schools and classes, in the interest of “objectivity,” which I think is illusory anyway, and should probably be banished to an area where, “The Sun don’t never shine.”

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