Q&A: Is a family a ‘who’ or a ‘that’?

Jill writes:

We got into a debate the other day about whether a family is a “who” or a “that.” I said “who” because it is made up of people. But others were arguing about the collective noun rule.

Can you set me straight?

The AP Stylebook does indeed consider “family” a collective noun. That means grammatically “family” is treated as a singular:

The family plans to go to the cookout.

By extension, “family” would take the pronouns that or which:

The family that lives next door plans to go to the cookout.

The Jones family, which lives next door, plans to go to the cookout.

What does AP say?


Two entries in AP’s Ask the Editor section online (subscription required for archives) seem to back up my reasoning. One of the entries, from 2009, is ambiguous, though:  

Q. When using the word “family” or “families”, would you refer to them in a sentence as “which”/”that” or “who”? Is “who” reserved for individuals? Thanks!

A. The correct pronoun depends on the sentence. Each of the three fits with certain constructions. 2009-01-15 (Source: Ask the Editor, Grammar)

That seems to leave an opening for “family who” or “families who,” though I’m not sure how that fits with AP’s inclusion of “family” under collective nouns. By considering “family” a collection of individuals, we’d have to say this:

The family who live next door plan to go to the cookout.

My ear cries foul at that.

Why the confusion?

Jill makes a logical deduction about people and use of “who” or “whom.” That’s exactly what AP says under its who, whom entry. So we’d say:

The man who lives next door plans to leave town tomorrow.

Similar logic applies to “couple.” AP says “couple” can be either singular or plural depending on the sentence. Consider the options here, though:

The couple that/who moved in next door is/are planning its/their honeymoon.

I’d make it plural:

The couple who moved in next door are planning their honeymoon.

In Words on Words, John Bremner offers an example of why you’d want to do that:

Try this for singular awkwardness: “The couple was married two years ago and it spent its honeymoon in Florida. But it was divorced last year and then went its separate ways.”

You could make the same argument for “family,” really. If that problem arises, though, I’d suggest writing “members of the family.” That’s the easy way to make it plural.

No matter the example, style is imperfect. Apply it logically and consistently, but always put clarity first.

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