Monday, November 30, 2009

Oh no, Mr. Phil!

Unbelievable. In the new After Deadline blog post, the Times's Philip Corbett makes this (retroactive) correction:
[Caption] Mike L. has remained a father to a daughter that wasn’t really “his.”

Use "who" for people, not "that."

No, no, no. You can debate the advisability of that in any given sentence, but there is not, and never has been, a rule against using that to refer to people, as I reiterated in the Globe Sept. 27. (No, I don't imagine that the Times's usage guru is looking to me for advice. But surely he would value Bryan Garner's opinion, quoted below?)

Here's my rant, one more time:

NOT THAT AGAIN! Yes, the zombie rule that it’s wrong to use that as a pronoun for a person is still undead. I’ve had several recent complaints from readers who think "the person that cuts the lawn" and "the woman that arrived before you," where that refers to a person, are improper English.

But no. This isn’t even a bona fide zombie rule, because it never was fully alive. That has been applied to people for at least 1,000 years, and usage books have never said it shouldn’t. But somehow, the notion that it’s bad English stays in circulation.

There was a time, in the later 17th century, when the relative pronoun that fell out of favor among the literati, according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. The dislike wasn’t aimed at that for people, but at all uses of the relative pronoun; as late as 1752, an anonymous grammarian was still urging writers to avoid that entirely. But they didn’t, and the fad was forgotten.

Of course, not every relative who or whom can be replaced with that. We no longer use that in nonrestrictive clauses, so we don’t say "my father, that I resemble" or "Jane Smith, that is in my biology class." But in the usual formulations -- "women that succeed," "friends that gather each week," "the boy that I was" -- that has always been standard English.

There is no real debate about this; in the new Garner’s Modern American Usage, Bryan Garner says, "It’s a silly fetish to insist that who is the only relative pronoun that can refer to humans." And that’s that -- or at least it ought to be.

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