Who vs. That — When to Use Each

In the English language, we use pronouns as linguistic shortcuts, streamlining communication by replacing nouns. Among these pronouns, who and that are often confused.

In general, who refers to people while that refers to things. Would you like more details? Keep reading.

Who — The Human Touch

Who is a pronoun that refers to people — or, in an anthropomorphic usage, sometimes to animals, as described below.

Here are some examples of how you might use who in a sentence.

The person who won the lottery is my neighbor.

In this sentence, who denotes a specific person, adding a personal touch to the statement.

Those who dare to dream often achieve greatness.

Here, who embraces the realm of people who harbor ambitions, emphasizing the human quality of aspirations.

Who — Because We Love Our Pets

Though using that for animals is always considered correct, we sometimes opt for who to refer to animals, especially pets, with a perceived personality or individuality. For example:

The dog who saved its owner from the fire became a local hero.

Even in referring to a canine, who is chosen because the dog is portrayed with a sense of personality or heroism.

Curious about using who vs. whom? Check out this article.

That — A Broader Spectrum

On the flip side, that operates in a broader spectrum. While it can refer to people, it extends its reach to encompass animals and inanimate objects. For example:

The book that I borrowed from the library was enlightening.

In this case, that is used because the book is an inanimate object, not a person. 

Here’s another example:

The car that I bought last year is now a vintage model.

There are circumstances under which you could use that to refer to a person. For example:

The scientist that discovered the new species received international acclaim.

You see, while referring to a person, “that” is suitable in contexts where the focus is on the professional or functional aspect rather than the individual.

But don’t worry if that’s confusing — you’ll never be wrong if you use who for a person.

And now you may be thinking that we’ve got another issue to discuss — when to use that and when to use which. Well you’re in luck — here’s an article all about using that and which.

When to Use Who vs. That — More Examples

What we’re saying here is that the decision to use “who” or “that” hinges on the nature of the antecedent, the word the pronoun replaces. If the antecedent is a person — or an animal with perceived individuality — who is the fitting choice. On the other hand, when the antecedent is a less animate entity or lacks personalized attributes, that seamlessly steps into the role of the pronoun.

Consider the following examples:

The artist _______ painted the mural is exceptionally talented.

Here, the blank can be filled with who since the artist is a person.

The idea _______ sparked a revolution changed the course of history.

In this instance, that would be apt, as an idea lacks the human attributes associated with who.

The horse _______ won the race was a majestic creature.

Opting for that is appropriate, while opting for who emphasizes the horse’s perceived individuality.

Choosing the Word That Works

In short, use who for people and that for things. Animals can take either word, depending on the context and the writer’s purpose.

Need Help with Who, That, and More?

EditorNinja is a professional copy editing and proofreading service. We employ professional editors who you can’t find anywhere else, and they show up every day to work on your content.
If you’re producing content at scale and editing has become a bottleneck for you, schedule an Intro Call, and let’s discuss your needs.