Equivalence of "that" and "who"
With regret, I must differ with Professor Anatoly Liberman, who, writing on language at the OUPblog, perpetuates the myth that the pronoun that must never be used in reference to human beings, for whom who is the only appropriate pronoun. At least he presents this as merely his own opinion, but it’s still an ill-advised preference.
If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know how frequently I have swatted that particular fly. And if you attend those annual holiday performances of Handel’s Messiah and do not flinch at “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light,” then you should have a sense of just how long that has been an acceptable alternative to who.
Professor Liberman teases at something interesting when he remarks that “according to some dictum, that should be differentiated from which.”* He’s not quite on target there, but I suspect that someone keen to regulate usage, aware that which refers to inanimate objects and non-human beings, concluded that that must logically function in the same way. And thus a superstition was born. You need pay no attention to it.
As Thoreau said, “Any fool can make a rule, and every fool will follow it.”
Follow-up: A couple of days ago I expressed my chagrin that someone had allowed a “’Tis the season” headline into The Sun. (No, no miscreant was identified, to be lashed to the mast and flogged round the fleet, but only because I’m too soft-hearted for my own good.)
That same day, the inane annual AP story on the price tag of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” popped up at baltimoresun.com. Fortunately, it was scotched before making it into the print edition.
I’ve often wondered how badly an AP reporter has to cheese off an editor to be assigned the “Twelve Days of Christmas” price tag story. “We’re going to give you a choice: waterboarding or the ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’ story.” Waterboarding would be less humiliating.
*No, we’re not going to plunge into the restrictive/nonrestrictive swamp just now.