Who versus That

Is This the Great Cat Who Fascinated the Man That Described Him?

by Owen Fourie

Oh, dear me! Whatever shall we do? The great T.S. Eliot, probably the most important English poet of the 20th century, made an awful mistake!

You’ll see it in his poem “Macavity: The Mystery Cat”. Look at these lines:

Macavity’s a Mystery Cat: he’s called the Hidden Paw–

For he’s the master criminal who can defy the Law.

He’s the bafflement of Scotland Yard, the Flying Squad’s despair:

For when they reach the scene of crime—Macavity’s not there!

That’s at the beginning of the poem. There’s one mistake there, and there are another two errors in the conclusion:

Macavity, Macavity, there’s no one like Macavity,

There never was a Cat of such deceitfulness and suavity.

He always has an alibi, and one or two to spare:

And whatever time the deed took place—MACAVITY WASN’T THERE!

And they say that all the Cats whose wicked deeds are widely known

(I might mention Mungojerrie, I might mention Griddlebone)

Are nothing more than agents for the Cat who all the time

Just controls their operations: the Napoleon of Crime!

What is Eliot’s mistake?

He is describing a cat, and he uses the relative pronoun who instead of that. Who relates to people. That relates to animals and inanimate objects.

The English Grammar Guru has spoken! Thus, it must be.

Stuff and nonsense!

Eliot did not make a mistake.

“Macavity: The Mystery Cat” is a wonderful poem in which the fictitious cat he so humorously describes takes on a personality that fully justifies the use of the relative pronoun who.

Some concocted rules of the 18th and 19th centuries may be happily discarded. Well-known writers have not been restricted by them.

Although it is reasonable to apply who to people, it is not improper to apply who to animals, particularly to those who have become part of your household.

That, instead of who, is applied to inanimate objects.

People that

It is the application of that, as a relative pronoun, instead of who, to people that raises the ire of many who seem bound by the “rule”.

Here, again, English literature bears testimony that authors have not restricted their use of that to animals and things.

If you feel uncomfortable about applying that to people and who to animals, respect your sensitivity and reserve who for people and that for animals and things in your speech and in your writing.

Let’s be flexible, though, and allow the use of who for people and animals as well as that for people and animals and things when it is reasonable to do so.

People who; animals that; things that

In your formal speaking and in your academic papers, it would be wise to use who for people and that for animals and inanimate objects.

  • The woman who wants to know about the cat is here.
  • The cat that they thought was lost has been found.
  • The car that nearly hit the cat is in need of repair after scraping that tree.

A person whose; an animal whose; a thing whose

It is interesting to note that the relative pronoun that is used to indicate possession, whose, is used for people, animals, and things:

  • The woman whose cat is here has arrived to collect it.
  • The cat whose owner is here is hearing her voice.
  • The car whose right fender was damaged is over there.

The alternative for animals and things if whose is not used is awkward:

  • The cat, the owner of which is here, is hearing her voice.
  • The car, the right fender of which was damaged, is over there.

The cat who was nearly hit by the car was not Macavity: The Mystery Cat.

Be sure to click on the two text links to You Tube in the preceding sentence. 🙂


Which usage do you prefer? Why do you think the rule should be strictly observed? Why do you think that we should be flexible in our use of who and that? Your comments, observations, and questions are welcome.

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