You that have ears to hear
Let me once again invoke the shade of Will Rogers to remind you that it ain’t what you don’t know that hurts you — it’s what you know that ain’t so.
A headline at baltimoresun.com, Prelate that denied Holocaust must recant, prompted this inquiry, “Shouldn't this be a prelate who?”
I explained, invoking the majesty of Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, that no, that as a pronoun referring to persons has been in English since God was a schoolboy. Some grammarians of the 18th century mistakenly decided that this was improper (they also cooked up the no-split-infinitives rule), and this superstition has persisted in pockets of usage ever since.
The inquirer wrote back to say, “To my ear, it just sounds wrong.”
An ear taken to a holiday performance of Messiah, though, would have heard a tenor sing from the Authorized Version of the Bible that the people that walked in darkness have seen a great light, and another ear at a production of Annie Get Your Gun, would have heard the male lead detail what is required in the girl that I marry.
Bishop Andrewes (one of the foremost divines commissioned by James I to translate the Bible) and Irving Berlin found nothing amiss with that referring to human beings, and neither need we object.
A sad fact of journalism is that some journalists’ ears have been so corrupted by bad examples and bad advice (viz., the preposterous no-split-verbs “rule”) that idiomatic syntax sounds off to them.