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Curtis Honeycutt

Grammar Guy: Who do you think you are?

“It seems like people use ‘who’ and ‘that’ interchangeably. When I hear people say, ‘You know Bill...he’s the guy that lives down the street,’ it makes my ears cry. What’s the rule on ‘who’ vs. ‘that?’ ” — Aaron, Noblesville, IN

I could spend a whole month on who. Who or whom. Who’s vs. whose. Who’s on first? Who let the dogs out? Who’s the boss? From my best research, I’ve concluded who is either the name of a band who likes to sing about pinball or the guy who plays first base.

Just kidding. As a general rule, use who when you’re referring to a person and that when you’re referring to an object. Case closed.

I wish it were that easy. However, according to style guides including Chicago Manual of Style and Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage, who and that can indeed be used interchangeably. Additionally, authors including Shakespeare, Chaucer and books such as the King James Bible often utilized that to refer to a person. I’m not about to argue with the Bible.

Since I’m not going to pick a fight with Bill Shakespeare and Geoff Chaucer, I’ll let the Oxford English Dictionary do it for me. According to Oxford, you should always use who when referring to people and that when referring to an object. As an ever-evolving language, you can either be frustrated that English is often a matter of opinion, or you can geek out on it like yours truly. To me, in twenty-first century English usage, who vs. that is a matter of dignity.

If you’re referring to a person, I prefer to use who: Bill is the guy who lives down the street. Bill isn’t a that; Bill is a who. Now, if you’d like to extend this rule to animals and pets (not that you asked), I think it depends how much you love your pet.

To revisit British rock icons The Who, they sing “Who are you? Who? Who? Who? Who?”, not “That are you? That? That? That? That?” And I’m not about to pick a fight with Pete Townshend.

— Curtis Honeycutt is a nationally syndicated humor writer. Connect with him on Twitter (@curtishoneycutt) or at curtishoneycutt.com.

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