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Over the top!

Children, run out and play in the sunshine. Mr. John has gotten into one of his states. There may be shouting.

I tell you, blogging about usage is like fighting on the Somme in 1916. You keep going back and forth, back and forth over the same stinking patch of worthless mud. Today, Martha Brockenbrough reopened the “that vs. who” offensive at The Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar, and I’m vaulting over the parapet one more time.

She quotes a professor at San Diego Mesa College to this effect:

I teach college English, and it is becoming more and more difficult for me to find students not using "that" as the default indicative pronoun when referring to people or groups of people in both speech and writing. The simple example I hammer into their questing noggins every semester is this:

People = Who/whom Things (anything not human) = That (SPOGG: or which)

The rationale I give is also simple, yet I think quite profound:

Our society and culture depersonalize humanity -- individuals or groups of individuals -- too much as it is. Let us not contribute to that depersonalization any more, as it may ultimately depersonalize us all.

This advice is elegant, simple, and wrong.

For one thing, pets and other named animals are routinely personalized. Just try to tell weeping little Angela that she should say, “We will miss our little Fluffy, that [or which} was such a sweet cat.”

For another, while it may be dismissive or depersonalizing to apply that to an identifiable person, it is common, and has been common for a long time, to refer to groups of people or an unknown person with that:

“The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light.”

“All people that on earth do dwell, / Sing to the Lord with cheerful voice.”

“The girl that I marry will have to be / As soft and pink as a nursery.”

If you want to take on the Authorized Version, Hymns Ancient and Modern, and Irving Berlin, go ahead; but I think you’re fighting above your weight.

Many of our students come to us woefully unskilled in English usage. They have either been taught nothing or taught rubbish: A paragraph is five sentences. Don’t split infinitives or use the passive voice—not that they can reliably identify either.

We should neither bemoan their ignorance nor preen ourselves over our superior accomplishments. They come to us to learn what they did not previously know, and our task is to instruct them. While it may be tempting to guide them through the thicket of English usage by giving them simplistic “rules,” we do them no favor if we fail to train them to make intelligent distinctions about the ways that literate people actually use the language.



Posted by John McIntyre at 2:19 PM | | Comments (23)


John, we agree to disagree. On my blog, in the comments, is my response:

There's nothing more invigorating than the sight of an editor vaulting over the parapet.

"Uncle John"? In Baltimore usage, that would be "Mr. John," wouldn't it?

A couple of supplementary notes, in case I fail to be persuasive:

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage: "In current usage, that' refers to persons or things. ..." The entry explains the origin of the superstition to the contrary in the 18th century, speculating that its use was discouraged because it has no direct equivalent in Latin.

And Bryan Garner: "Who is the relative pronoun for human beings (though that is also acceptable. ..."

Dahlink, you're quite right. I'm making the change.

So is it bad English to say ... We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; For he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother.

Evidently so, at least at San Diego Mesa College.

Mr. John, Miss Dahlink is gratified. Not having grown up around here, we were surprised and charmed to hear children address adults as Mr. and Miss plus their first names--as in "Mr. Phil" or "Miss Lacey."

Angel: Hail, thou that art highly favoured!
Virgin: Mind your language, fellow.

Apart from the usage question (on which I agree with our host), what about the allegation that "our society and culture depersonalize humanity ... too much as it is"?

First, what does this mean, exactly?
Second, are we really more "depersonalized" today than, say, 150 years ago, when small children were put to work in factories?
Third, will insisting on the use of 'who' only for people and cute animals reduce the terrible scourge of depersonalization?

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, no, hang on a bit,
Perhaps I've got that just a wee bit wrong;
'One who will do' - that's surely more the thing.
I wouldn't want to make the footman laugh;
Although I am at times a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous -
Almost, at times, a fool.

I think agree with you, John, though perhaps my opinion is a bit harsher than yours. Advice like this is an utter waste of space in students' minds -- not to mention how it doesn't fit with actual usage. If students don't know English grammar well, the solution isn't to fill their minds with new baseless claims.

Not to add another dimension to this debate, but should choosing between 'that' and 'who' correspond to personal pronoun choice (i.e., 'it' or 's/he')? For example, in this (,0,4168991.story) article about a straying sirenian the animal gets the depersonalized 'that', but is later referred to as 'he'/'him'. It strikes me as inconsistent, but is it problematically so? (And while we're at it, how come Chessie is a 'he' but Ilya is an 'it'?)

Kara: I think not.

'He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.'

"I want a girl just like the girl that married dear old Dad"

It's a reference to a known person - at least we hope so! - and "who" would not work near so well. I am a card carrying SPOGG member and appreciate Martha's writing (her stories about her kids are great stuff), but she does tend to occasionally endorse rules of grammar that do not exist. I mean really, holding Jane Austen up as an example of a great writer who mistakenly used they as a singular pronoun? I don't think so!

By the way, re your dingdong elsewhere, John, surely "Angel Gabriel" for the archangel is OK? I'm not totally up on the protocol for the various ranks in the Celestial Hierarchy, but isn't it just like calling a master sergeant, say, Sergeant Bilko?

Calling an archangel an angel isn't quite like calling a lieutenant an enlisted man, but the four archangels do outrank the ordinary angels.

Thus the Celestial Hierarchy: Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones, Dominions, Virtues, Powers, Principalities, Archangels, Angels

Hmmm, I'm editing an article that uses which with the antecedents group and . Should I turn the writer in for the bounty?

“We will miss our little Fluffy, that [or which} was such a sweet cat.”
Shouldn't use 'that' here? Quite: it's non-defining. A question of grammar rather than little Angela's distress.

Suzan, if Fluffy were my cat, the sentence would end with "WHO was such a sweet cat." Cats are people, in my book.

Dahlink: Yep, just my point. If Fluffy was your cat, you'd probably say 'who'. If you hated your neighbour's Fluffy, you'd probably choose 'which'. However, as mentioned, it's a non-defining relative clause and thus, loved or loathed, upset or chuffed, you wouldn't use 'that' in this case.

Some interesting observations by Arrant Pedantry:

Thanks for the link to Arrant Pedantry. I especially liked the description of prescriptivism he pulled from Professor Milroy. I will now be on the look out for "post hoc rationalizations" in all aspects of my daily life.


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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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