That vs. Who

The rule:

  • “Who” refers to people
  • “That” doesn’t.

Here’s a good illustration of why this matters:

Is he referring to the ex-wife or to the phone message? Ambiguity is bad except in poetry and lies.

A writing tip: pronouns are supposed to refer to the closest possible antecedent. That’s why I avoid pronouns. Too easy to lose track of the antecedent.

These are possible alternative sentences:

  • …message from an anonymous ex-wife who told me…
  • An anonymous ex-wife sent me a message that told me…
  • An anonymous ex-wife told me…

I suppose I could add that the doctor appears to be violating patient confidentiality.