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Old Superstitions Die Hard
People that try hard usually succeed. Is that sentence grammatical? Some nitpickers say the relative pronoun that should never refer to humans. Here is an interesting piece
of mail that arrived recently:
Please review your “rule” about the use of “who” and “that” when referring to persons. The use of
“that” when referring to people is very poor English and, unfortunately, has become today’s vernacular. I wonder if you could review
your work here, so that students are not confused. I teach graduate students and I do not permit the distinctions you are making re this particular
word usage. I cannot refer my students to your site for that reason.
The writer went on to say that using that instead of who, while “common today in vernacular English,” is
“still eschewed in academic writing.” If we doubted this, we were advised to consult an online site called The Purdue Owl.
That is what we did.
According to the Owl, one may substitute that for who in informal English, but who is “more common in formal
written English” and is “preferred”—although the Owl does not say who prefers it. Look at the wording: “more
common” and “preferred.” The Owl is conceding that even in formal usage, that sometimes replaces who.
We language fussbudgets like to demonize “today’s vernacular,” but it won’t work in this case. Many authorities past and present
would beg to differ with the Owl, and with our correspondent’s assertion that that for who is “very poor
English.” The Chicago Manual of Style—the publishing industry’s bible—says, “That refers to a
person, animal, or thing.” In the 1990s, author and literary critic Kingsley Amis wrote that he found the man that I spoke to preferable to the man whom I spoke to. In the eighties, English scholar John B. Bremner wrote “that may refer to persons,” with no mention
of formal or informal. In the seventies, the renowned editor Theodore M. Bernstein wrote, “You may say either ‘the boy that lives next
door’ or ‘the boy who lives next door.’ ” In the mid-sixties—half a century ago—an eleventh-grade textbook
called Warriner’s English Grammar and Composition said, “That may be used to refer to either persons or things.”
Great essayists, novelists, and poets have been substituting that for who for centuries. A famous quotation from the Gospel of John
begins: “He that is without sin among you …”
Many words have been used to describe the Bible, but it’s a safe bet that “informal” is not one of them.
Because of the e-newsletter’s large readership, please submit your English usage questions through GrammarBook.com’s “Grammar Blog.”
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[[firstname]], because you are a subscriber to the newsletter, you get access to one of the Subscription Members-Only Quizzes. Click here to take a Who vs. Which vs. That Quiz and get your scores and explanations instantly!
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Punctuation is powerful.
An English professor wrote the words
“A woman without her man is nothing”
on the chalkboard and asked his students to punctuate it correctly.
All of the males in the class wrote
“A woman, without her man, is nothing.”
All of the females in the class wrote
“A woman: without her, man is nothing.”
Learn all about who and whom, affect and effect, subjects and verbs, adjectives and adverbs, commas, semicolons, quotation marks, and much more by just sitting back and enjoying these easy-to-follow lessons. Tell your colleagues (and boss), children, teachers, and friends. Click here to watch.