The Grammarphobia Blog

The hoodoo on “who do”

Q: Am I the only one bothered by the recent surge in the use of “who” to refer to non-human subjects? I haven’t noticed it in print but I hear it on radio and on TV – often by folks with otherwise impeccable grammar. Here’s an example: “The banks who did poorly were hit hard by the sub-prime mortgage crisis.” Is this usage acceptable? Or are the perpetrators just too lazy or unschooled to decide between “that” and “which”?

A: This is new to me. I’ve never heard anyone refer to a lending institution as a “who.” It certainly isn’t acceptable. “Who” is restricted to people and sometimes pets. For example, The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage recommends that animals be referred to with “he,” “she,” and “who” (instead of the impersonal “it” or “that”) if the animal’s name or sex is mentioned.

Your theory about the source of this boo-boo – confusion over “that” and “which” – may be right. The same thing happens regularly with people who can’t decide between “I” and “me,” and decide to play it safe (they think) and go with “myself.”

I often hear from people who have the opposite complaint, and tell me they’re bothered when “that” is used to refer to people and not objects. In fact, this is perfectly good English. A person can be a “who” or a “that.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) notes that there’s no foundation either in logic or in usage for the widespread misconception that “that” should refer only to things and not to people.

Both “who” and “that,” as relative pronouns, are appropriate for referring to people, according to A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage, by Bergen and Cornelia Evans. The authors write:

That has been the standard relative pronoun for about eight hundred years and can be used in speaking of persons, animals, or things. Four hundred years ago, which became popular as a substitute for the relative that and was used for persons, animals, and things. Three hundred years ago, who also became popular as a relative. It was used in speaking of persons and animals but not of things. This left English with more relative pronouns than it has any use for. … Who may in time drive out that as a relative referring to persons, but it has not yet done so.”

One more point. While a bank can’t be a “who,” it can be referred to in the possessive with “whose” (as in “The bank whose loss was greatest was Acme”). There’s an old grammar myth to the effect that you can’t use the possessive “whose” to refer to an inanimate object because things can’t own things. Not so. The possessive “whose” is not restricted to animate antecedents.

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