Q: I listen to NPR a lot and hear people say things like “a company who is hiring more workers” or “a school who is putting on a festival.” Did I miss the memo that said “who” had replaced “that” and “which”? What is your take on it?
A: We hadn’t noticed this use of “who” for things rather than people until you brought it to our attention. We’re now seeing it a bit, though not all that often in the mainstream media.
In fact, we’ve found only one example in a search of NPR transcripts. Here it is, along with some other “company who” sightings from news sites online:
“It isn’t the best look for a company who is trying to maintain investor confidence” (NPR, Sept. 25, 2018).
“As a company who is just beginning to take its technology out of the lab and into the market, focus is everything” (Forbes, Sept 10, 2018).
“We need to see some units designated as workforce housing and managed by a company who is (already) doing it” (Chicago Tribune, Sept. 10, 2018).
“A company who is making more money by cutting back rather than by growing is not an attractive investment and the stock will drop” (Nasdaq, April 13, 2018).
In all those examples, speakers of standard English would normally use “that” or “which” in place of “who.” We should note that some of the examples are from people being interviewed on the news sites, not by journalists at those sites.
Typically, “who” is used only for people and animals with names. Inanimate things and nameless animals are referred to as “that” or “which.”
However, some sentences that at first glance look like those examples above are indeed standard English, as in this definition of “executive secretary” from Macmillan Dictionary online:
“someone with a senior position in a company who is responsible for helping people in senior positions with organization and management.” (The “who” here refers to “someone,” not “company.”)
In the uses we’re discussing, “who,” “that,” and “which” are relative pronouns, words that introduce dependent (or subordinate) clauses, as in these examples: “He’s the guy who stole my car” … “This is the car that [or which] he stole.”
By the way, many people erroneously believe “that” can refer only to a thing, not to a person. However, “that” has been used for both people and things for about 800 years, and the usage is standard English (as in “He’s the guy that found my car”).
On a related issue, a dependent clause that’s not essential (one that can be removed without losing the main point of the sentence) customarily begins with “which” and is set apart with commas: “Mac and cheese, which is our favorite dish, is on the menu twice a week.”
A dependent clause that’s essential can begin with either “that” or “which,” and has no commas: “We prefer the mac and cheese that [or which] comes with wieners.” As we wrote in 2013, “that” is more common in the US and “which” in the UK, though there’s no rule requiring either one in essential clauses.
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