Who isn’t that

A McClatchy Newspapers article on the latest combat in the Gaza Strip includes this statement:

Residents in northern Gaza hiding in their homes said Israeli soldiers were quickly confronted by Palestinian militants that had been lying in wait.

Look closely at the last part of the sentence. Those should be Palestinian militants who had been lying in wait.

Here’s what the AP stylebook advises, in separate entries, on this distinction:

  • Who is the pronoun used for references to human beings and to animals with a name.”
  • “Use that and which in referring to inanimate objects and to animals without a name.”

No matter where you stand on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, we can agree that even Palestinian militants are human beings. So let them be “who.”

2 thoughts on “Who isn’t that

  1. That’s one of my biggest pet peeves, and my students claim it’s not their fault for using it because everyone else (read: media) does, too. Maybe they’re right! (But if any are reading this, I’m still counting off points for it.)

  2. While “who” is preferred, “that” is not incorrect.

    Paul Brians addresses it in his usage guide. So does Garner: ” ‘That,’ of course, is permissible when referring to humans: ‘the people that were present or the people who were present.’ Editors tend, however, to prefer the latter phrasing.”

    Just want to make clear, it is a matter of choice – of style as you point out – not something hard and fast.

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