Hello, everyone.
My name is Yasu. I have a question.

"This is the only student (who/that) solve the problem."
I heard native speakers preferred to use "who" rather than to use "that" in above sentence.
Why do they choose to use "who"?
I think both are grammatically correct, but I'm confusing of their difference.
Could you show me how to grasp the difference and feeling?
1 2

Yes, both can be used.

Who- people
That- people or things
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hello anybody there
Hello yasu_english
Mudclay is right: both are used.
However, only one is correct. You should use "who" to refer back to a human being( s) and "that" to refer back to a thing.
Many, many native speakers make the mistake of using "that" for "who" and vice-verse. It's a common error, and its frequency may change the rule some day. But, until then, it's "who" for humans and "that" for things.
Thanks for replies all.
Well, could you tell me in what kind of situation
I can use this sentence - "This is the only student who can solve the problem."?
I can't imagine the scene.
Is this sentence natural in the first place?
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Hi John

With due respect to you, I am appending below the definitions from the following dcitionaries. I was taught that 'that' can refer to both human beings and things.

Macmillan Dictionary is a Britsh English dictionary, The other dictionary is an American English dictionary. It is a 1913 edition and the definition may be outdated as stated.

May I have your view on what is stated in the dictionaries? Thanks.

Macmillan Dictionary

That’ is used for introducing a clause that shows which person or thing you are talking about , or that gives more information about a specific person or thing
We haven’t met the people that live next door .
Think of all the things that have happened to us since we moved here .
We have built a structure that should last for hundreds of years .
I want a car that’s reliable .

(This definition is from the 1913 Webster's Dictionary and may be outdated.)
  • (pron., a., conj., & adv.) As a relative pronoun, that is equivalent to who or which, serving to point out, and make definite, a person or thing spoken of, or alluded to, before, and may be either singular or plural.

Hello Yoong Liat,

With all due respect to you as a student of the English language, I reiterate my position: one should use you when talking about a person and that when talking about an object. It is my opinion that if you stick with that rule, you'll always be safe. It should be obvious to you by now that there are several viewpoints about this subject. What follows explains mine. You are free to have your own opinion, you are free to decide whatever suits you best. This is not a contest where participants must follow strict rules. The English language is alive, and like any living thing, it changes and evolves. However, please note the example below of how using "that" purposely can cause animosity. Citations of other texts used to research your question are shown enclosed within parentheses. Example: (12). They refer to the bibliography that appears at the end of this response. You have requested my view on what is stated in the two examples you provide. My opinion is that they are incorrect and what follows is why I feel this way.

"The who-goes-with-people rule is conventional wisdom (1,2) but, like you, I also found a credible reference that says otherwise (3). In fact, there is a long history of writers using that as a relative pronoun when writing about people. Chaucer did it, for example (4).

So, it is a very grey area, and if you have strong feelings about it, you could make an argument for using that when you're talking about people. But my guess is that most people who use who and that interchangeably do it because they don't know the difference. I don't consider myself a grammar authority, but in this case, I have to take the side of the people who prefer the conventional interpretation. To me, using that when you are talking about a person makes them seem less than human. I always think of my friend who would only refer to his stepmother as the woman that married my father. He was clearly trying to indicate his animosity and you wouldn't want to do that accidentally, would you?

Finally, even if you accept the conventional wisdom, there are some gray areas and strange exceptions. For example, what do you do when you are talking about something animate that isn't human? That's a gray area, and it can actually go either way. I would never refer to my dog as anything less than "who", but my goldfish could probably be a "that".

One strange exception is that you can use whose, which is the possessive form of who, to refer to both people and things (5,6,7,8) because English doesn't have a possessive form of that. So it's fine to say, "The desk whose top is cluttered with grammar books," even though it is obviously ridiculous to say, "The desk who is made of cherry wood."* So, this is why I feel that who goes with people and that goes with things.

1. Burchfield, R.W., ed. The New Fowler's Modern English Usage. Third edition. New York: Oxford, 1996, p. 773.
2. Lynch, Jack. Guide to Grammar and Style. October 31, 2006. < http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~jlynch/Writing/w.html>; (accessed February 9, 2012).

3. The American Heritage College Dictionary. Third edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993, p. 1540.
4. Burchfield, R.W. ed. The New Fowler's Modern English Usage. Third edition. New York: Oxford, 1996, p. 773.
5. Lynch, Jack. Guide to Grammar and Style. October 31, 2006 <;.
6. The American Heritage Book of English Usage. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996. <http://www.bartleby.com/64/C001/049.html#POSSESSIVECO> ; (accessed February 9, 2012).
7. Pronouns and Pronoun-Antecedent Agreement. Hartford: Community College Capital Foundation, <http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/pronouns.htm>; (accessed February 9, 2012) .
8. Quinion, Michael. World Wide Words. 4 November 2000 <http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-who3.htm> ; (accessed February 9, 2012)." *http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/who-versus-that.aspx
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