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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, 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.



Posted by John McIntyre at 2:33 PM | | Comments (13)



But this raises, without begging, the question: Would "who" have also have been correct?

Fowler and Garner join you in supporting Bishop Andrewes and Irving Berlin, if I read them correctly. That is more than good enough for me. I'm thinking this is an opportunity to point out that grammar doesn't always insist on instances of this is right, so that must be wrong.

Yes, "who" would also have been perfectly correct. As you note, real grammar doesn't necessarily stipulate that if word A is correct in situation x and word B is correct in situation y, then A can never be correct in y and B can never be correct in x.

"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."

The really sad fact is that this phenomenon is by no means limited to journalism.

Both 'who' and 'that' appear together in the general confession in the Order for Evening Prayer (Book of Common Prayer, 1662 version):

'Spare thou them, O God, who confess their faults. Restore thou them that are penitent.'

There are more instances of 'that' than 'who' in that order of service. So if it's good enough for Cranmer and his successors, it's good enough for me.

Could be your inquirer's eye confusing his ear. Unpronounced and when you aren't expecting it, 'prelate' looks like it should be a verb, and if it is followed by 'that,' could well be one. It's easier to grasp if you change 'that' to 'who' (or 'prelate' to 'bishop').

Incidentally, a notoriously unreliable source which shall be nameless dates the origin of the no-split-infinitive rule to 1834 (source here). The justification was that it was something ''uneducated' people did.

I think I punctuate based on how I would speak. So if I come to a place in a sentence where I would normally take a breath if speaking the sentence, I put a comma there.

It's probably why I struggle so with commas around quoation marks and parentheses--those aren't speech pattern punctuation marks.

Bucky! I just mentioned you without knowing it in the comments about why commas matter.

Or, rather, I referred to the way you decide where to place commas. Did you learn this from a teacher or derive it on your own?

jupiter - I am pretty screwed up when it comes to punctuation. I once had to learn the Christian Science Monitor style book. In my career, I've worked with attorneys a lot, who punctuate very precisely, but not according to normal grammar rules. And I spent some time doing speech writing, which is likely where I started punctuating conversationally (especially using the ellipsis.)

Now I'm just always confused.

I would think in speech writing, conversational punctuation would be a requirement. You probably had to spell some things differently, too?

Working with lawyers sounds potentially confusion-making. But it does make me think of a question.

The placement of the comma in the Second Amendment causes no small controversy. Any insight on how it would be interpreted by the rules the lawyers you worked with used?

(I'm sure I have extra prepositions end of the sentence at there.)

jupiter - you must not know that I'm from Colorado. There is no question out here what the Second Amendment means. You can write it in pig-latin if you want, and add all the punctuation you care to add. We're packin'.

The (bad, I think) comma habit I picked up from working around attorneys is, if the comma is part of what's included within quotation marks, the comma goes inside the quotation marks. If the comma is part of your writing that includes quoted material, it goes outside of the quotation marks. (Not sure I described that well.)

Ah, Colorado. All is revealed.

Bucky, I think I understand you -- you don't put a comma in the quoted material unless it's in the original, no matter what.

In terms of quoting and punctuation, it always made sense to me to be able to put commas and periods, but not exclamation points or question marks or anything else, within the quoted material even if they're not in the original. Commas and periods wouldn't usually affect the way the quotation was interpreted, but the others would.

E.g., McIntyre said "preposterous!!!!!11!!!!LOLZR!!"

JEM, you seem to support split infinitives. Why's that?

Because the "rule" against split infinitives is a bogus rule invented in the 18th century by grammarians trying to make English more like Latin and Greek. The "split infinitive" is a perfectly acceptable syntactical construction in English -- always has been -- and the bogus rule against it has been repeatedly exploded by all reputable contemporary authorities.

Prof. McIntyre's Mission: To boldly go where no grammarian has gone before.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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