Thursday, August 6, 2015

You may be a who, or you may be a that

(Originally published in the Boston Sunday Globe, August 24, 2003.) 
THE WORD / Jan Freeman: Who that?

"The man that is failing the people more than anyone is Gray Davis," said fledgling candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger of the governor he hopes to supplant. Reader Dave Furlong, a California voter himself, would have changed that sentence: He liked our recent treatment of which vs. that, he e-mailed, "but I wish you had addressed that/who also, as in 'Everyone that wants to go, line up here.' In editing, I find it's a very common error."

Very common, yes; an error, only sometimes. Arnold may not be a native speaker, but here his English is traditional, if debatable. The insistence on who for people, on the grounds that calling a man (or woman or child) that is somehow insulting, is a fairly modern prejudice.

"A woman that deliberates is lost," Joseph Addison wrote in 1713. The Oxford English Dictionary also coughs up O. Henry's "I'm no traitor to a man that's been my friend" (1910) and Ring Lardner's "Imagine being married to a woman that plays five hundred like she does" (1924).

Some stylebooks, including the Globe's, do tell writers to avoid that in referring to people. But throughout the English millennium -- from before the Wycliffe Bible's "the people that dwelt in darkness" (1382) to "The girl that I marry" (Irving Berlin, 1946), that has been a people pronoun.

That had a brief fall from grace in the 16th century, when a fad for using who or whom instead swept the English literati (including Addison, who revised his writings to reflect his new faith). But by the 20th century, that was back in favor, as the usage-edict record attests.*

In a 1906 American grammar textbook, John Wisely tells pupils that who "expresses persons or personified things," while that is for "inanimate objects, lower animals, persons." Fowler, in the 1926 edition of Modern English Usage, confesses that he'd like to see even more use of that in constructions like "the distinguished visitors that the Crawfords had."

Bergen and Cornelia Evans, in A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage (1957), note mildly that some writers prefer who where persons are concerned: After centuries of "Our Father that art in heaven" (or "Our Father which art"), the Lord's Prayer now usually says who. But even Miss Thistlebottom, Theodore Bernstein's personification of grammar-school dogma, didn't draw a clear line on that: She would have told you, Bernstein says, that "which normally refers to things, who to persons, and that to either."

In his 1996 updating of Fowler, Robert Burchfield tries to make it simple: "Normally use who . . . following a human antecedent and that (or which) following an inanimate antecedent. Either who or that may be used when the antecedent is animate but not human, or when the antecedent is human but representative of a class."

Those guidelines (which would call Schwarzenegger's usage wrong) set forth a conceptual rationale, making the choice of who or that dependent on the abstractness of the pronoun's referent. So the barking dog that keeps you awake, two streets over, is different from the dog who goes out for a romp with you every day, an individual with a name. A cyborg that's on the assembly line becomes a who when it's programmed as a hunk. But unless it's banned by your local authority, that is a pronoun for people too -- some of the people, at least, some of the time.

*There's a detailed discussion of personal that in the indispensable Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage. I can't imagine why I didn't mention it here. 


Adrian Morgan said...

"the Lord's Prayer now usually says who"

I dispute this. The version of the Lord's Prayer used in most churches I'm aware of simply says, "Our Father in Heaven".

Gregory Lee said...

There is an analysis, favored by some, according to which "that" in relative clauses is clause introducer rather than a pronoun. For one thing, that accounts for why it never turns up except at the beginning of the relative clause, unlike the wh- relative pronouns. That removes the rationale for not using it to refer to a person, since it doesn't actually refer to anything.

Kate Bunting said...

Adrian Morgan: Those churches that prefer to use the version of the Lord's Prayer familiar from the BCP nevertheless often change the wording to "Our Father, who..." and "those that trespass against us" in line with current usage. (I'm in the UK.)

John Cowan said...

"Our father in the heavens" is literally what the Greek says, but in Latin a prepositional phrase can't attach to a noun phrase directly, it needs a relative clause, so the Vulgate (on which the traditional English version is based) has to say Pater noster qui es in caelis 'Our father who is in the heavens'. The singular version of heaven reflects Old English usage, in which the word originally just meant 'sky'.