Word Confusion: Who ‘Dat??

Posted May 2, 2012 by Kathy Davie in Author Resources, Self-Editing, Word Confusions, Writing

Revised as of 13 October 2017

Relative pronouns are used to introduce a relative clause, (a type of dependent clause) which may be restrictive or non-restrictive. Such a clause modifies a word, phrase, or idea in the main clause.

The easy part is the relative pronoun can be a subject, an object, or a possessive pronoun in either restrictive or non-restrictive clauses. Yep, there’re two types of relative clauses, which will be explored in a later post.

It’s relative because it relates to the word its relative clause modifies.

The person who phoned me last night is my teacher.

If the relative clause is removed…

The person is my teacher.


  1. Bold indicates the relative pronoun
  2. Italic indicates the relative clause
  3. Bold & italic indicates the subject being modified by the relative pronoun

Since the person is my teacher doesn’t really tell you much of anything, that makes the who phoned me last night a restrictive clause. It demonstrates how important this relative clause is in explaining the main clause.

My Preference in the Who ‘Dat?? Controversy

Who is used only when referring to people (yeah, I think animals are people, too) while that can be used for people, things, and animals.

I have a strong personal preference toward using who in any situation that involves people or animals while reserving that for things — or people or animals for whom I have no respect. It’s a useful consideration when creating your characters, whether they’re meant to be viewed as “bad” or “good”.

That Who
People that sell used cars…

Yeah, some used car salespeople are the scum of the earth.

People who sell used cars…

I suppose a case could be made that anyone who sells used cars isn’t necessarily a good person, but they are people.

Dogs that growl…


Dogs who growl…

Aww, they’re so protective.

Policemen that investigate theft…

He isn’t going to investigate too thoroughly or care.

Policemen who investigate theft…

I feel as though this cop cares about my loss.

Yeah, it’s perception. And this is my perception on that versus who. It’s a personal choice between being respectful (in my opinion) and being easy.

Other “Who” Posts

To avoid confusions, there are other posts that explore the who versus … question, including:

Track This Word Confusion

Word Confusions started as my way of dealing with a professional frustration with properly spelled words that were out of context in manuscripts I was editing as well as books I was reviewing. It evolved into a sharing of information with y’all. I’m hoping you’ll share with us words that have been a bête noir for you from either end. Consider sharing this Word Confusion with friends by tweeting it.

Refers to People
Credit to: Apple Dictionary.com
Part of Grammar:
Rule: Relative pronouns introduce relative adjectival clauses.

Read up on the dissection of “Who versus Whom” for clarity on this confusion.

Who Subject or object pronoun for people I told you about the woman who lives next door.
Whose Possessive for people, animals, and things Do you know the boy whose mother is a nurse?
Whom Object pronoun for people

Colloquially, who is generally used

I was invited by the professor whom I met at the conference.
Refers to Things
There’s a good post, “Which is That?“, on when to use that or which.
That Subject or object pronoun for people, animals, and things in defining relative clauses which could also use who or which. I don’t like the table that stands in the kitchen.

Technically, you can also say:
I told you about the woman that lives next door.

This version is softer, gentler:
I told you about the woman who lives next door.

Which Subject or object pronoun for animals and things.

It can also refer to a whole sentence.

Do you see the cat which is lying on the roof?

He couldn’t read which surprised me.

C’mon, get it out of your system, bitch, whine, moan…which words are your pet peeves?

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Pinterest Photo Credits

Graffiti Face, Bologna, is Biopresto’s own work and in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

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