One of the most commonly abused rules in the English language relates to the proper use of who and that. You will frequently find these words improperly interchanged in the written word and in speech.

Quiz time. Which of the following sentences use the words who and that correctly?

  1. She was the type of woman who collected mens hearts like trophies.
  2. Bob and Ted were the only members of the council that ever resisted her.
  3. They were people that grew up in difficult times and learned to survive.
  4. The boys were of the caste who were looked down upon by cultured folk.

Your answer?

All four of the sentences were wrong. Heres how they should have been written:

  1. She was the type of woman that collected mens hearts like trophies.
  2. Bob and Ted were the only members of the council who ever resisted her.
  3. They were people who grew up in difficult times and learned to survive.
  4. The boys were of the caste that was looked down upon by cultured folk.

Heres the rule:

Use who when referring to one or more individuals. Use that when referring to a type, class or species.

The way I remember this rule is to always use who when referring to an individual or group of individuals, and use that when referring to the group itself.

So in the first sentence, that is correct because the phrase that collected mens hearts like trophies directly describes the group (the type of woman) itself. She is merely a representative of that type

The last phrase in the second sentence (who ever resisted her), refers to two individuals who belong to a council not to the council itself.

The third sentence talks about individual people, so who is used. True, you could argue that those people form a type, class or species, but we didnt mention a type, class or species just people.

In the fourth sentence, the phrase that was looked down upon by cultured folk refers directly to the caste and not to the boys. The boys were members of that caste. So that is right.

It can be a fine line. But thats English. And thats why people who write get paid the big bucks.