Who? That.

You should read Plashing Vole’s post on using ‘that’ and ‘who’ when talking and writing about literature. Does a literary character get lumbered with being a ‘that’ or can they break through to new depths and become a ‘who’?

Plashing Vole explains:

“A Whovian treats characters as real people, a Thaterite analyses them linguistically and celebrates the separation of art and what some people still refer to as ‘real life’.”

Do you have a preference? Plashing Vole prefers ‘who’ and–after brief consideration–I agree it sounds better. I also agree that it’s easier to call a wild animal ‘it’, although I do it for sake of ease and not because it’s a ‘dumb beast’. Unless I went around sexing each creature I wanted to refer to, I’d feel unhappy about giving a 50/50 chance to getting a guess of ‘he’ or ‘she’ correct.

In general English usage, here is what is printed in the Oxford A-Z of English Usage:

“It is sometimes argued that, in defining relative clauses, that should be used for non-human references, while who should be used for human references: a house that overlooks the park but the woman who lives next door. In practice, while it is true to say that who is restricted to human references, the function of that is flexible. It has been used for human and non-human references since at least the 11th century. In standard English it is interchangeable with who in this context.” – p.154 (1st ed.)

Animals are non-human, so ‘it’ seems the way to go. But for literary use? A fictitious character is not human, but does masquerade as one in the mind of the author and reader. At least, that’s the hope.

Perhaps ‘that’ is the easy way out. But when enough people are frustrated by its use, it’s not an easy way out at all. Interchangeable or not, a character that/who is real in terms of what you’re studying is operating in a complicated place.

Given all the potential trouble here, surely we could grace them as a ‘who’…


  1. Actually, I’m undecided as yet! Now I’ve thought about it, ‘that’ seems technically correct but it jars because I’m so used to using ‘who’ with a proper noun or pronoun. And maybe readers will think I’m illiterate! The key to it is what you call the masquerade, although some authors have dropped that pretence.

    I just don’t know what to do!

    1. Constructs upon constructs. No wonder everything jars!

      In that sense, if ‘that’ is technically correct, where is the official book of rules? I quote the Oxford A-Z of English Usage, but there are slightly different (and similar) offerings in all the following books I took off my shelf: Who’s Whose; The Economist Style Guide; Longman Guide to English Usage.

      Each guide is slim on usage when discussing literature, so we’re still no closer. Other than grit your teeth and stop crossing out use of ‘that’, there may be little else we can do.

      Unless, of course, there’s funding in it… 😉

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