Sunday, October 14, 2007

More Grammar Nit-picking: Who vs. That

The grammar rule about the use of "who vs. that" seems pretty simple: Who refers to people. That refers to groups or things. Examples:

1. Hillary is the one who rescued the bird.
2. Bill is on the team that won first place.
3. She belongs to an organization that specializes in saving endangered species.

However, the improper use of "that" for "who" when referring to a person, seems to be increasing all the time. There are more than
700 Google News hits for the phrase "the person that," including the following examples, mostly of quotes within a news article:

"The person that made the call..."

"I loved her for the person that she was...."

"The person that donated the money..."

"The person that is causing the problems...."

In all those cases, I think it should be "The person who... "

Likewise, there are more than 1,000 Google News hits for the phrase "
the man that," such as "...the man that the left hates the most, President Bush..," which I suggest should be "The man who..."

Finally, here's an example of using both "that" and "who" in the same sentence! "The quarterback that lost fumbled and threw three interceptions. The quarterback who won, though, is the one who got pulled on Saturday."

Update: When you use "grammar check" in Microsoft Word for the sentence "She is the one that found the bird," it accepts the "incorrect" sentence as written, and of course it also accepts the correct sentence "She is the one who found the bird."


  1. You are railing against a usage that has existed since before Chaucer. Even Merriam-Webster's (11th Collegiate) goes to the trouble to admonish against this particular bit of arbitrary prescriptivism on p. 1294, top right col.: "The notion that "that" should not be used to refer to persons is without foundation; such use is entirely standard."

    You, of course, may wish to make a distinction in your own prose. However, it is unfair and unwise to call those who do not, including Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Carlyle, Dickens, somehow "improper." The usage is "increasing all the time" because it has been with us as a standard element in the language since the Angles met the Saxons. It looks silly to enforce a rule that only you know about.

  2. I, too, know about this rule. Just because the old boys ignored it doesn't make it right.

    Correct usage enhances our communication, rendering it more precise and meaningful. Sloppy composition and conversation, in my opinion, result in weakened impact.

  3. English once made precise distinctions between "you" and "thee," and between common nouns used as objects and ones used as subjects (pronouns still make such distinctions), to mention just two distinctions that have fallen by the wayside. We once made precise distinctions among verbs and nouns (now we simply say "seat," "book," or "drive," for example, and word order makes the imprecise precise.

    In my opinion, no "weakened impact" occurs when a writer or speaker employs standard and venerable usages that have been modeled for centuries by educated and widely imitated writers -- who are, surely, still read in our finest insitutions. (Notice the lack of precision in "read:" is it past tense or present tense? Only the context of the sentence will guide you.) I'm all for clarity and precision, and I also agree with Old Word Wolf, above, that nit-picking rules with no basis in the language only make the enforcer look silly.
    Cheerio. Nan Erwin

  4. Strictly speaking, “who” should be used instead of “that” when a person is the referent, but the terms are commonly interchanged. Who is a term of civility. After all, who wants to be thought of as a “that”? “That” is sort of an impersonal pronoun: Isn’t it?

  5. Walt is welcome to suggest that people, when possible, are who and not what.. My point is that our esteemed economist has no grammatical, historical, literary, or economic reason to flog the ignorant masses about "the grammar rule about who vs. that."
    Such a soap-box toot might be analogous to an English major pontificating against anyone who broke "the rule" against calling a number an average instead of a mean.

    And not to be mean, but before one rails against nonexistant points of grammar, then one might wish to check his own compound-word management. The gerund (-ing form) is properly nit-picking, with a hypen. Only nitpick, nitpickedand nitpicker are closed, a distinction preserved in M-W's 11th Collegiate.

    As Numberwise sagely observed: "Sloppy composition and conversation, in my opinion, result in weakened impact."

  6. Sure, I'm always open to accepting a grammar citation, I think grammar rules are important, which is why I write about grammar occasionally.

    I have changed "nitpicking" to "nit-picking" in the headline of the post. Interestingly, the NY Times style guidelines appear to accept it either way, since both spellings (nitpicking and nit-picking) appear with about equal frequency. But I checked the dictionary, and the only entry is "nit-picking."

    Also, the incorrect uses of "that" for "who" that I cited were mostly quotes from the public within an article. It seems to me that the journalists themselves follow the rule of properly using who for a person, but deviate from the correct usage when quoting somebody else. So although the general public has gotten sloppy about the rule, journalists and careful writers follow the rule, which is a very, very easy rule.

  7. With the dearth of learning in high school nowadays, it’s getting easier to determine educational attainment levels through writing. Since educational attainment often determines credibility, following the formal rules in writing is important.

    Writing is like getting dressed—it’s usually better to be over-dressed than under-dressed.

  8. Mark,

    An economist who argues against how people use their language.

    That's a bit odd, from a libertarian point of view.

    Do you think that by imposing language rules, total wealth will increase or decrease?

    I distictly remember you arguing: If you regulate it, you get less of it.


  9. Thanks for the grammar discussion, and I think Walt G. makes an excellent point in his last comment. Partly in response to Old Word Wolf:

    I think there is a difference between somebody who says:

    1. "I think careful writing is important and I respect the rules of grammar, spelling and punctuation."

    2. "I think careful writing is important and I have all of the rules memorized."

    I would put myself in the first category. I think I have most of the important grammar and punctuation rules memorized, and I use spell check often when I am unsure about spelling. But I am completely open to grammar citations, and have graciously accepted two recently: a) for using "lying" instead of "laying," and b) for using "nitpicking" instead of "nit-picking," both of which I corrected.

    Like most bloggers, I "publish"
    a daily blog, and I write as an "independent economic journalist," without a staff or any proofreaders or copy editors. I'm up to almost 1500 posts now, and I hope that most of them are error-free.

    Keep in mind also that I blog daily amid constant distractions including taking phone calls, answering emails, responding to comments like this, talking to students, attending meetings, preparing for lectures, doing research, correcting problem sets and exams, etc., so it's a real challenge to have an error-free blog for every post.

    But I will gladly accept grammar citations from any reader, and will make corrections when necessary.

  10. Concerning hyphens:

    I frequently get asked about my use of them for compound modifiers before a noun, because I use those quite a bit. Even MS Word tags them as incorrect, at times, even though they are proper grammar.


  11. And now, for an even bigger encore, we present "dangling participles."... And then there's where-should-the-period-be-placed?

  12. I know this rule…I love this rule…I lament its wrongful slide into obsolescence. Ignorance has no bearing on whether or not something is correct, regardless of the quantity or quality of people WHO, for one reason or another, do not obey a rule. Moreover, I have a hard time believing how any writers/speakers would pass up on one more great opportunity in nuance for which our language is so well known. Any of the previous posters who doubt this rule should try it out—if not for themselves, then the rest of us. This way, when you say “the one who/that got away,” we’ll know whether you’re referring to a fish, or the last time your “date” wouldn’t take a traveler’s check.

  13. It is nothing to do with people or things. Who is certainly only used for people, but that can be used for either. The usage rather depends on whether the relative clause is defining or non-defining. See the following reference for details.

    The key statement is...

    "Relative pronouns

    Words like who, that and when are often referred to as relative pronouns when they are used to introduce relative clauses. You use:

    * who for people, which for things, and that for both people and things.
    * whom as the object of a relative clause (in more formal English), though it is increasingly common to replace it with who.
    * whose to indicate possession, as a determiner before nouns."

  14. The Cretins that corrupt grammar should be dangled from the highest particple.

  15. I agree wholeheartedly with NumberWise and all WHO feel sloppiness is no excuse. As for Walt G, it's too bad so many people feel educational attainment equals credibility. I don't have a bachelor's degree, but my Mom was passionate about preserving the English language. She taught me to read before I was in Kindergarten and exposed me to people, places and literature of all kinds in an effort to make me the best person possible. Due to their own exposure to proper grammar and the passive learning I employ, my 7 and 5 year old boys are extremely articulate and excel in school. I know a few people with MBA's who can barely put together a written sentence. So, as you can surmise, I don't subscribe to your assertion that formal education can be spotted a mile away. Proper education, like charity, begins at home.

  16. There's nothing more nonsensical than arguing a grammar point based on historical texts, or literature of a bygone era. English is a living language! What was acceptable to Chaucer should be good enough for modern usage? Puh-leeze! That's just lazy. Check modern style guides for current rules. And make sure you're looking at American grammar rules, if you're writing in America. British rules are different.


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