Picking Proper Pronouns: Who vs. That

As the writing specialist for Johnson & Wales University’s College of Online Education, I’m always working with students to improve their writing skills. A common issue among writers that I see all the time (and one that particularly rankles me!): the use of “who” versus “that” in formal writing.

“Who” is the preferred pronoun when referring to human beings; the relative pronoun “that” should only be used, then, for animals and things. 

Here are two instances where “who” is used correctly:

The students who compiled mixed-methods studies were the most successful in the course.  

Online education instructors are those who value lively discussions and interactive presentations.

However, if you were referring to objects or things, you would then use “that.”

Here are two instances when “that” is correct:  

The Business Information and Decision-Making course that Dr. Smith offers in the fall includes a virtual internship with a company of the students’ choice.

The research that she uncovered became part of her Literature Review.

When referring to animals, personal possessions, and objects, you should also use the relative pronoun “that.”

Dogs and horses are the animals that Cora loves the most.

My niece loves the sparkly purple dress that I bought her for her birthday.  

A jinx is something that is believed to bring bad luck.

It is important to remember that we speak differently than we write. While it is acceptable to say, “She is the one that helped me redecorate my kitchen,” in formal written English, you MUST use the pronoun “who!”

For student help and even more tips and strategies, please visit my Student Writing Support website.

To learn more about the Johnson & Wales University College of Online Education and how one of our degree programs can help further your career, complete the “Request Info” form on this page or call 855-JWU-1881 or email onlineadmissions@jwu.edu.