Pronouns can get a little tricky when it comes to inanimate objects versus living things. Often, it can seem like they’re interchangeable, and most wouldn’t even notice the difference. But there is a right and wrong way to use them, like with “that” and “who.” So, I’ll explain how and when to use “that” and “who” in a sentence.
Can That and Who Be Used interchangeably?
Yes and no. I know that answer doesn’t really help. “Who” and “that” are considered pronouns used in the same way within a sentence or clause. You could use them interchangeably, and the meaning won’t be lost, but you might be technically incorrect. Let me explain further.
When to Use That or Who
You should use the pronoun “that” when you’re referring to an object or a living creature without a name, which leaves the pronoun “who” for when you’re referencing a person or living thing that is named.
The way I remember the difference is by looking at the pronouns themselves. “That” looks like it’d be a thing, and “who” looks like it’d be a living thing.
How to Use “That” in Place of “Who” and Vice Versa
If you’re writing a report on frogs, for example, you’d use the word “that” because you’re talking about a living creature that’s unnamed and not as specific as, say, a pet frog named Jim.
But when talking about something living like a person, pet, or anything with a persona attached to it, you’d use the word “who” when referring to them. But if you’re referencing any of these examples as a generic group or class, you’d use “that.”
Is It People Who or People That?
Although references to people are considered a group or class, you’d still use the pronoun “who” here just as you would for an individual person.
- Correct: I love people who enjoy reading.
- Incorrect: I love people that enjoy reading.
Is It Someone Who or Someone That?
The same goes here. The correct way to reference “someone” in a sentence is with “who.”
- Correct: I need someone who can work long hours.
- Incorrect: I need someone that can work long hours.
Using “That” in a Sentence
- We’re looking for a new dining room table that can stand up against our rambunctious kids.
- My daughter needs a new desk that’s larger and can accommodate all her art supplies.
- My dad is hoping to buy a second-hand truck that can tow his quad and ski-doo.
- I need a new laptop that can handle the level of work I do and all the programs I use daily.
- My daughter belongs to a team that cares so much for each other.
Using “Who” in a Sentence
- Setting my dad up with online dating is hard because he’s looking for a woman who also loves to hunt and fish, and there aren’t many around.
- My teacher is someone who engages with the students and teaches us through fun activities.
- Our daughter is the type of artist who draws anime.
- My readers are the kind of people who enjoy reading fantasy romance books.
People, Places, and Things
These are two pronouns I see get mixed up all the time, and it can be tricky to remember the difference and proper usage. Just always correlate the word “who” with people or living creatures that are named, and you’ll never get them mixed up again! I hope my grammar rules and tips have helped!