Who’s that? That’s who

Earlier this week, this tweet from The New York Times generated a discussion about style and grammar:

Here is the question from Kelly Flincham, who teaches journalism at Hofstra University: Shouldn’t it be “a teen who vapes”? Isn’t there a rule that says use “who” for people and “that” for objects?

Patrick LaForge, an editor at the Times, responded with this link from Grammar Girl’s website, suggesting that the two words are interchangeable, at least grammatically. LaForge said later that the NYT stylebook prefers “who” in those situations, although such guidelines are more loose on Twitter.

As the Grammar Girl post discusses, stylebooks differ on “who” vs. “that.” Several recommend “who” when talking about people and, on occasion, animals.

I’ve had my own experience with this question. When I was wire editor at The News & Observer in the early 2000s, I met with a group of readers concerned about coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In their view, the Raleigh newspaper’s news judgment, story placement, headlines and word choice were biased against the Palestinians and in favor of the Israeli government.

One of the readers said that we had published “Palestinians that …” constructions on occasion. She said that using “that” instead of “who” was a way to indicate that Palestinians are not people. I did my best to assure the reader that there was no such intention and that I believed that Palestinians and Israelis are humans who deserve fair treatment in the news media.

Since that conversation in the N&O newsroom years ago, I have held fast to this distinction between “who” and “that” on stylistic grounds. So if you say you want to talk to a teen that vapes, I won’t question your grammar. It’s correct. But to be on the safe side, I’d make it “who.”