Grammar Rules and Preferences |
The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

Rules and Preferences

There were fervent protests from readers reacting to “Old Superstitions Die Hard.” The article established that the relative pronoun that refers to people as well as to things and has done so for centuries.

Never was an essay more aptly named.

“I don’t care what all of your quoted sources say,” wrote a fiery businesswoman. “Executive-level communications candidates who use ‘that’ do not endear themselves to this veteran headhunter.” One can understand her passion—the raw anger and frustration we all feel when a principle we’ve lived by for years is exposed as an old wives’ tale.

Meanwhile, we’ll leave it to you to decide whether those responsible for the following quotations are English-challenged hacks …

  • “I am he that walks unseen.” —J.R.R. Tolkien
  • “I am he that aches with amorous love.” —Walt Whitman
  • “… children that belonged to a man I didn’t even know.” —Mark Twain
  • “A man that hath friends must shew himself friendly: and there is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother.” —King James I, the Bible, Proverbs 18:24

Another reader took issue with Kingsley Amis’s preference for the man that I spoke to rather than the man whom I spoke to—but for a different reason: “I would have written ‘the man to whom I spoke.’ ”

The gentleman who wrote this believes that prepositions should not end sentences. It’s another of the myths about English that just won’t die, right up there with “Do not split an infinitive” and “Do not begin a sentence with And.” Amis set a trap, and this person fell into it. There is no living English scholar who will defend “Do not end a sentence with a preposition,” yet the superstition is still believed by an alarming number of intelligent people.

Here is what the snarky Mr. Amis himself had to say about it: “This is one of those fancied prohibitions dear to ignorant snobs … It is natural and harmless in English to use a preposition to end a sentence with.” Amis goes on to quote H.W. Fowler, the dean of English scholars, who wrote, “The power of saying People worth talking to instead of People with whom it is worth while to talk is not one to be lightly surrendered.”

We are all entitled to our preferences—even our prejudices—but declaring them rules everyone else must live by is crossing a line.


Pop Quiz

Pick the correct choices. Answers are below.

A) This is the man who got away with murder.
B) This is the man which got away with murder.
C) This is the man that got away with murder.

A) She is not someone to whom you want to be rude.
B) She is not someone whom you want to be rude to.
C) She is not someone that you want to be rude to.
D) She is not someone you want to be rude to.

A) I just saw Vada, who looks distracted.
B) I just saw Vada, that looks distracted.
C) A and B are both correct.


Pop Quiz Answers

1. A and C are both correct.
2. All choices are correct.
3. A is correct.

If the article or the existing discussions do not address a thought or question you have on the subject, please use the "Comment" box at the bottom of this page.

24 responses to “Rules and Preferences”

  1. Nancy says:

    Using words intelligently as well as correctly is an art form. Rules are useful to guide the way. Speaking and writing have deteriorated in this society to the laziest and most ignorant level. Motivating people to care about what they say and how they say it is what is important.

  2. Mark F. says:

    I think item 3 in this pop quiz illustrates the absurdity of using “that” to refer to people.

  3. Mark F. says:

    PS: Sorry but I will ALWAYS consider the use of that instead of who or whom to refer to people to be borderline-illiterate. I believe it implies that people are things.

    • You have eloquently demonstrated Steven Colbert’s concept of “truthiness,” the idea that what one FEELS to be right somehow supersedes all evidence to the contrary.
      You have decided to flout the scholarship of every celebrated English authority from H.W. Fowler on down, and to disregard the syntax of towering writers from Mark Twain to Walt Whitman.

  4. Ian Brown says:

    Did Churchill not say:
    Up with this I will not put!

  5. Dixie says: is a wonderful resource. I love it! I would not want to do without it. It is a treasure!

    However, in the latest newsletter, “Rules and Preferences” knocked me for a loop. I read it, and then I re-read it, and came up with this conclusion: It’s okay for preference to negate rules. I feel like saying, “What’s the use? Who cares?” Well, I do care, and I’m going to try to “get over it” after I stew about it for a while.

    • We are kicking ourselves that we were not clear enough to avoid your reaching such a conclusion. We would be depressed too if rules didn’t matter. We did not say that preference can negate rules; simply that the two should never be confused. Beginning a sentence with a capital letter is a rule. Using “who” to refer to people is a preference. If you happen to write “She is the woman that helped me this morning,” don’t be upset with yourself. It’s all right.

      Thank you for the kind words.

  6. Julia S. says:

    In the Pop Quiz, no. 3 “I just saw Vada . . .”, I understand the point of the exercise was to choose between “who” or “that” before “looks distracted”.

    But don’t both sentences lack subject-verb tense agreement? Wouldn’t Vada have “looked”‘(past tense) distracted if you just “saw” her?

    • You make an interesting point. Both sentences are allowable, and mean different things. If one says “looked,” it means that Vada seemed distracted then but may look different now. If one says “looks,” it means that Vada is going around looking distracted today, and the person who saw Vada believes it is an ongoing situation.

  7. Antony Terrence says:

    This may not be the right topic title. However, I want to ask you this question. Does the phrase “a list of” take a singular verb or plural verb? For example, I have seen people write, “A list of medications appear.” instead of “a list of medications appears.” A list of medications is read together and is, as a unit, the subject of the sentence; hence it should take the singular form of the verb “appears.” Please guide.

    • says:

      Our rule 1 of Subject-Verb Agreement says, “A singular subject (she, Bill, car) takes a singular verb (is, goes, shines), whereas a plural subject takes a plural verb.
      Example: The list of items is/are on the desk.
      If you know that list is the subject, then you will choose is for the verb.” Therefore, write “appears.”

  8. Kevin says:

    I may often be so anti-grammar and rules (as a partial hatred of the days of childhood in which mother sat the massive dictionary on the table interrupting dinner to correct our use of words/grammar (and may love stream of conscience/ run on sentence writing way too much)) but… once college hit I free styled my way through the English language without any validation or influence other than eventually stumbling upon and reading “The Meaning of Everything” and it reinforcing so much of what I felt but didn’t understand whilst navigating the language flexibly over time.
    I completely love your simple, cogent statements and examples. So very gratifying to hear.
    Also of note, my search of the phrase “called for” ending a sentence in my reread of The Lord of the Rings led me here. Tolkein used the phrase a few pages into book one and I just had to figure out other thoughts on how long this usage of prepositions has been going on and how/why Tolkien made this choice. It’s clear to me that it just makes sense because it’s right but I’m certain my mother (in all settings) and my partner (in academic settings) would not agree.
    I apologize for my late night demi-insomniatic ramblings and terrible use of grammar and writing style! BUT it makes me happy writing like that.
    Thanks so much!

  9. Miri says:

    ​​​(I was born in 1970, just noting, in case things have changed in (K-12) school over the years.) I was always taught that “who” refers to people, “that” refers to single things and “which” refers to multiples of things or groups, with few exceptions. When I read anything, famously written to recently Tweeted, where “that” refers to a person/people, it’s like nails on a chalkboard. It sounds wrong and uneducated. One of my high school English teachers even told us that “I am he that walks unseen.” is OK, only because it was written by J.R.R. Tolkien, but if we wrote that, it would be marked as incorrect (he also required a comma between he and that/who).

    I love and appreciate Grammar Book, as you’re an amazing source of information. I often send others to, too. I ended up here today, hoping to verify that “which” refers multiples/groups, not “that.” Now, I’m honestly more confused about the “rules,” as it seems far too many of the rules I was taught, you are saying, are myths. Which English rules, drilled into kids brains in K-12 school, are still rules? Are there any left? Your Quiz Question 2 leaves me banging my head on the table. There is no way I would/could ever accept answers B, C or D. I can’t even read them without cringing. I’d never be able to read a book written that way.

    I agree with Julia S., above, that Quiz Question 3 should be “looked.” The sentence implies that you can’t/don’t see Vada now, so you couldn’t actually know how she currently looks.

    Maybe all of the confusion between rules and myths contributed to why I did so poorly in K-12 English classes. My early (Chicago, IL area) grade school spelling teacher taught us that “surprize” is equally acceptable as (and preferable to) “surprise,” as you don’t win a “prise,” you win a “prize.” To this day, I still catch myself sometimes typing out surprize, before correcting myself.

    • Proper English grammar is a mixture of rules, practices, and preferences, many of which evolve over time. It’s likely we’ve all had teachers with personal preferences that they taught as hard and fast rules, not to mention rules that were incorrect (“he also required a comma between he and that/who”).

      Thank you for the kind words.

  10. Jon says:

    Let’s take this example:

    “It was done to Charlie by Dan.”

    If we replaced it with him/he:

    “It was done to him (Charlie) by him (Dan).”

    In this case we now have:

    “It was done to whom by whom?”

    In this case, the subject or the doer “by whom” did something to the object “to whom.” Is this correct? Or should it be:

    “It was done to whom by who?”
    “It was done to him by he.”

    I’m confused.

    • You took all the right steps and then had no confidence in the conclusion: “It was done to (whom) by (whom)?”

      • wrdlvr says:

        Jon, what’s throwing you is the horrid passive construction, that is, “it” is the subject of the sentence; the other two are not subjects, even if one of them “did” something to the other. Better to write, “Charlie did it to Dan.” Eezy peezy.

  11. Bob says:

    Which is correct:
    1. You don’t know who to choose.
    2. You don’t know whom to choose.

    I opt for 2.

  12. samuel says:

    i bought the blue book of Grammar and have some questions.

    Page 133 (who, whom, that, which quiz 1)
    1. can’t “which” be also an answer?
    5. can’t “that” be also an answer?

    Page 134(who, whom, that, which quiz2)
    3. can’t “that” be also an answer?

    • Rules 2a, 2b, and the Note on p. 14, in addition to our post That vs. Which, explain why our answer to #1 is that. Please also see the Note on p. 15 and the Note near the beginning of our post. They explain that the distinction between that and which is a guideline that is good advice, but not a hard-and-fast rule. We include it in our tests because it fosters good writing habits.
      That is the correct answer to #5 on page 133 and to #3 on page 134.

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