That's What They Say
8:05 am
Sun January 26, 2014

The ‘that,’ ‘who,’ ‘which’ dilemma

The pronoun who is for people and the pronoun that is for things, except when it’s the other way around.

On this week’s edition of That’s What They Say, Host Rina Miller and University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan discuss the confusing usage of who, that, and which.

Students are often taught that is for inanimate objects while who is for people. However, standard grammar books allow some variation on this rule.

In fact, the word that has referred to people for hundreds of years.

“You can go back to early translations of the Lord’s Prayer” Cruzan describes. “You will get ‘Our father, thou that art in heaven.” In this example, that refers to a person.

Still, “Who art in heaven” and “Which art in heaven” can be found in other translations, justifying the varying usages of these pronouns.  

Adding to the confusion is a gap in the English language—the pronoun that does not have a possessive form.

“If I say ‘Oh, that’s the car whose horn was honking!’ I’ve just used whose to refer to a car,” Curzan explains.

Can you think of other bewildering examples including that, who, and which? Let us know by writing on our Facebook wall or on our webpage.

-Clare Toeniskoetter, Michigan Radio Newsroom

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