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“That” Can Refer to People

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  Ed Good  —  Grammar Tips
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We use who-whom-whose to refer to humans and that-which to refer to inanimate objects and abstractions. Thus:

The woman who became CEO was admired by all. The idea that she suggested ultimately succeeded. The report that she wrote sealed the deal.

Living things closely associated with humans often receive the honor of who-whom-whose:

Amber affectionately stroked her pet turtle, who curled up in front of the fire.


Igor stomped on the cockroach that crawled along the floor.

Sometimes, however, we use that to refer to people, usually a generic type of person:

The writers that learn these rules will improve their work.

Or you could use that to refer in a restrictive way to an identifiable person:

The child that made the A addressed the class.

These days we never use which to refer to a person. Such usages as “Our Father, which art in heaven” are archaic.

Finally, as noted above, when an inanimate object or abstraction needs to show possession in a clause, we can either use the rather stuffy of which or we can borrow from the personal relative pronouns and use whose:

It was an idea whose time had come.

Surely, as mentioned above, no one would write:

It was an idea the time of which had come.


Previous: Who, Whom, Whose

Next: That vs. Which

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