So you think you can teach English
I hope you have been following the amusing back and forth on Martha Brockenbrough’s Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar about that and who. It started with a flat assertion by Professor Peter R. Jacoby of San Diego Mesa College that that must not be used to refer to human beings.*
Ever since discovering what Professor Jacoby is pitching to his youthful charges, I have been ruminating about how teachers of English and composition might address the complexities more responsibly, misleading the young as little as possible. This much I have come up with:
You make clear that your focus is on a dialect of English, what is called standard written English. You do not police conversation or informal communication.
You establish that formal written English has a series of registers that writers observe, adjusting according to subject, occasion, and audience.
You identify rules of grammar and usage, explaining variations and exceptions.
You identify guidelines for usage and take care to make clear that they are not rules. **
You identify points at which the language is in flux and explain that students will have to exercise judgment in deciding whether to observe a traditional usage or adopt a new one.
You are free to express personal stylistic preferences, so long as you make clear that they are not the Law and the Prophets.
You recommend reputable authorities that your students can consult, and you explain how to arrive at judgments when the authorities conflict.
You follow reputable authorities yourself and acquaint yourself with continuing conversations about the language, regularly modifying your own views when you encounter persuasive evidence or arguments otherwise.
You will not have time to accomplish all this thoroughly, and your students will display varying capacities of absorption. You do the best you can by them, and try to do better next term.
*His assertion is, of course, nonsense, as I pointed out in comments there and in a blog post here. There are numerous examples of the usage by reputable writers going back centuries. Garner’s Modern American Usage and Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage agree on the point; when you find a prescriptivist and a descriptivist in agreement on a point of usage, you can take it to the bank.
His assertion that using that to refer to human beings “depersonalizes,” is, of course, exquisite nonsense. We can take that up another time.
**Openly disagreeing with the textbook can be a useful technique here.