It seems every other book these days contains a vampire, a werewolf or, more commonly, a team of staggering zombies. Let’s talk about the latter. They are decidedly mean, violent, and relentless—not unlike your typical serial killer sitting in a faraway prison cell, which begs the question: how shall I treat said beasts in manuscripts that I’m editing?
Certain words are attached only to humans; other words are used only for things. A zombie is essentially a moving corpse, so is Dad still Dad if he’s no longer 100 percent human? Are such semantics considered by the reader, or will he or she care whether the creature is a “who” or a “what” needing a “who” or a “that”? This is why writers hire agonizers.
As always, I turned to the oracle, the omniscient source who takes me by both hands and guides me toward the sun: The Chicago Manual of Style. [I feel the same way about the AP Stylebook, just to be clear.]
And I found this Q&A cleverness:
Q. When referring to a zombie, should I use the relative pronoun “who” (which would refer to a person) or “that” (since, technically, the zombie is no longer living)? Essentially, does a zombie cease to be a “person” in the grammatical sense?
A. Let’s assume this is a serious question, in which case you, as the writer, get to decide just how much humanity (if any) and grammatical sense you wish to invest in said zombie. That will guide your choice of who or that.
Ah, another judgment call by the copy editor. Such power! Either way, consistency is key.
If the zombie is hauling ass, he’s not dead—that’s a no brainer—he’s obviously just in a rabid state. Beyond that, I’ll say that even though humans can act like monsters, I prefer to think that they’re not. Call me an optimist. I hereby choose the “that” over the “who” for my own peace of mind.