The person that or the person who?

Should you write ‘the person that’ or ‘the person who’?

Reader Simon Walters, of FD Solutions, wrote in about one of his language bugbears. Namely: ‘misuse of the word “that” when “who” would be more appropriate. It’s so annoying when people say “The person that delivers my milk arrived late”; they should say “The person who delivered my milk…”.’

Thanks, Simon. On the face of it, I would agree: if you’re referring back to a human being, you should use ‘who’ rather than ‘that’, or doesn’t it imply that you think of the person in question as a thing?

However, research proves this isn’t quite the hard-and-fast rule one might imagine. For example, the indispensible Fowler’s Modern English Usage says: ‘That can also replace who (or whom), especially when the reference is non-specific, as in The person that I saw was definitely a woman.’ And examples of this usage can be found in work by Chaucer, Shakespeare and in the King James Version of the Bible.

Mind you, in any forum where the topic is thrashed out (with vehement defenders on either side of the argument), there isn’t anyone who can truly prove that it isn’t just a case of what sounds better to the writer or speaker.

So, in fact, it’s a case not of right and wrong, but rather of personal preference or style: although if you are referring back to someone specific, it’s advisable to write ‘who’. And, personally, I’ll be choosing to use ‘who’, too.

It’s always good to hear from readers here at the blog: business writing questions, language bugbears, or any other passions or issues you have with words at work – they’re all very welcome. We’d love to hear from you.

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