Imagine this: you’re completely in the zone and making stellar progress on writing your next blog post only to come to a grinding halt because you can’t figure out whether to use “who” versus “that” in a sentence. Before you know it, you’ve lost your flow and you’re busy searching online for a resource that can clear up your confusion.
We’re betting it does because it’s a pretty common experience. That’s why we’re going to focus on the difference between “who” and “that” in today’s post.
“Who” is a word that we use when we’re referring to people. For example, we use “who” in sentences like these:
- “The man who delivered the package is still sitting in his truck.”
- “The participants who took part in the study received $100.”
- “We sent the slides to everyone who attended the webinar.”
In comparison, we use “that” when we’re referring to animals and things. For example, we use “that” in sentences like these:
- “The bird that built the nest has left.”
- “The cheque that arrived in the mail is sitting on Nisha’s desk.”
- “They delivered the albums that Micah made on Tuesday.”
The difference between “who” and “that” seems simple, right? If you agree, can you tell us which word we would use in the following sentence?
“Facebook is a group _____ helps people build social connections.”
Sentences like this can trip people up because companies are things that are made up of people. So do we treat it like a thing or like a group of people? The convention is to treat businesses and other organizations like things when we’re talking about them as an overall entity. For this reason, we would write the Facebook sentence like this:
“Facebook is a group that helps people build social connections.”
However, if we were referring to employees at Facebook, we would use “who” instead of “that.” Why? Because we’re focusing on the people who work at Facebook instead of the organization as a whole. In this case, our sentence would look something like this:
“It’s the employees at Facebook who help people build social connections.”
In sum, you can figure out whether to use “who” vs. “that” in a sentence by thinking about what type of word you’re referring to. If you’re talking about a person, use “who.” If, however, you’re talking about an animal or thing (including an organization), use “that.”
Want to know the difference between other commonly misused terms? Check out our post on the difference between “e.g.” and “i.e.”
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