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.

Posted on Tuesday, September 9, 2014, at 4:15 pm

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15 Comments on Old Superstitions Die Hard

15 responses to “Old Superstitions Die Hard”

  1. Glenn H. says:

    Excellent article.

  2. Barney H. says:

    Kingsley Amis may be a wonderful person, but I would have written “the man to whom I spoke.” Even if that makes me a fuss-budget.

  3. Charles G. says:

    Thank you for this discussion. While I prefer “who” and “whom” to that, I suspect I will always be in the minority to other people (that regularly avoid “who” and “whom”).

    This column made me recall another mild, possibly related, controversy regarding the use of “which” versus “that” in sentences…

  4. Tricia H. says:

    Oh dear, More time is being spent in this issue on a ‘who is correct’ theme than in helping us learn to communicate clearly in the written word. Food for thought.

  5. Yusuf says:

    Is it guess who or guess whom? Is it says who or says whom? Thanks a lot Grammarbook.

    • Both “guess who” and “guess whom” can be correct depending on the sentence. Examples:
      Guess who ate all the pizza?
      Guess whom I saw at the meeting yesterday?
      The idiom “Says who?” is correct.

  6. Suzanne H. says:

    Two questions:

    1. This is from the pop-quiz today but I thought “who” would be used, not “that”: 3. I was one of over three hundred people that attended the sold-out event. CORRECT

    But glancing at the information on your website it looks like either “who” or “that” is okay (which is taking me awhile to digest) – just want to be sure.

    2. I’ve always used “and” in a list like the following to send the message that all choices are included: She denies chest pain, shortness of breath and difficulty walking. However, I’ve been told that it should be “or” as in the following: He denies cough, fever or ear pain. Do you know which is correct? To me the “or” indicates that you are not including all three, but the person correcting me really knows more about this than I do.

    Thank you very much!

    • As we note in our blog Who vs. That, who is preferred when referring to people, however, that may refer to people, animals, groups, or things. In regard to your second question, in our opinion both sentences are grammatically correct, and the difference is negligible.

  7. Gaurav Singh says:

    Thank you everybody for such discussion.
    I’m an intermediate scholar, and I’d like to share:
    Both these words are Relative Pronoun but have different rules of placing them and so we need to understand the words clearly.
    By my knowledge, WHO can be used for living entities from common/proper noun but never for nonliving ones even if they are noun or fall in this category.
    Whereas, THAT is same as WHO to a limit, but doesn’t means equally. That sometimes is used also for comparison and this should be learned. I hope this might help.
    Thanks again.

  8. Diego Bertoncin says:

    Sorry, Mrs. Jane: so “that” can be used not only instead of “who”, but also in place of “whom”? (see you example)? Let me add that I consider the Webster’s a kind of gospel for those who speak American. Am I right? The dictionary says that “that” is used referring to both men and things. How do you explain that, in this forum, many scholars disapprove this use? An Oxford English dictionary prefers, when “that” refers to humans, “who”, but with a distinction: “Although who is usually preferred to that, that is preferred to who after superlatives (Newton was one of the greatest men THAT ever lived), only (you are the only person THAT can help me), all, any and it is or it was…”.The issue is more and more complicated…

  9. Joseph H. says:

    It is encouraging to me, and no doubt to many others, that so many people are interested in the proper use of the English language. Let’s keep this particular ball rolling. It’s exhilarating.

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