Posts Tagged ‘human referent’

In an earlier post, I noted that one should never use the word “that” when referring to a human referent, and one of my readers was quick to point out that this is not entirely correct. So, I wanted to add a brief post to clarify.

The whole question of “who” versus “that” as a relative pronoun with a human referent is quite a gray area. My reader pointed out that before the 15th century, “that” was the only option. He is not wrong; I do, in fact, recall that Geoffrey Chaucer, for example, (14th century English poet, author, philosopher, etc.) did indeed use “that” instead of “who” in his writing. However, as time progressed and the use of “who” crept into our language, it gradually became more acceptably “correct” to use “who” rather than “that.” Therefore, I suppose it is more conventional wisdom to use “who” with a human referent rather than a hard and fast rule (my use of the word never was probably too strong!). However, I do maintain that it stills seems more correct (and more humanizing) today to use “who.” Judging by a brief google search on “grammar who versus that,” I found there a lot of smart folks who agree with me.

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