Monday, April 16, 2012

The desk whom he was selling

Recently I was proofreading a friend's manuscript -- one in which elephants loom large -- when I noticed that Microsoft Word didn't like her habit of using who and whom to refer to the animals. These were elephants with names, though, and lots of publications allow who and whom for individual named animals. I wondered what the Word rule was, so I clicked on the wavy line.

Of course, I wasn't surprised to find the oft-misinformed Word telling us to restrict the use of that to nonhuman referents. (It's a myth that people can't be that, but it's one that many have embraced in our psychobabbling era, claiming that that is "dehumanizing.")

The usage examples, on the other hand, were a hilarious surprise. Here's the grammar checker's entry:
"Who", "That" or "Which"
Generally, use "who" or "whom" to refer to people. Use "that" or "which" to refer to anything non-human.
Instead of: She bought the desk, whom he was selling.
Consider: She bought the desk, which he was selling.
Instead of: They saw the play who got good reviews.
Consider: They saw the play that got good reviews.
Could this be the honest effort of a non-native speaker, or is it evidence of a sly sense of humor lurking behind the grammar checker's sober exterior? And are there other entries with equally subversive usage "explanations"? That would be the best surprise of all.


Kay L. Davies said...

Hilarious. Love the desk whom.
Re the play, I think "that" leaves it wide open. "They looked at the reviews, and saw the play that got good recommendations" or else "They planned to visit the Art Theatre because it was showing one of their favorites. They saw the play, which got good reviews."
English usage is so difficult for most people. My young brother started his schooling in Spanish. When he was in high school in Canada, he complained English didn't make sense. My parents and I agreed with him. It seldom does make sense, but we can still learn how to use it.
When he was 25, he had a temporary job in Germany. Before he left, we assured him bilingual people find it fairly easy to learn a third language. We neglected, however, to tell him to look for similarities between German and English, rather than between German and Spanish. When he phoned home, we said, "Oh, by the way, we forgot..." He was not amused.

The Ridger, FCD said...

When I was in the army, in language school, we got our orders - for Germany. One of my classmates was disheartened. "I'm having enough trouble learning Russian," he said. "I'll never make it in German."

"Oh, German's a breeze compared to Russian," said Mike, another classmate who already spoke it. "It's a lot more like English - don't worry about it. I'll teach you all the German you'll need before we get there."

Ron looked skeptical, but Mike went on: "I'll start now. 'Bier hier'."

"Okay," Ron said after a pause. "What's that in German?"

"That WAS German."

Ron smiled and said, "I'm gonna like Germany."

Gregory Lee said...

Maybe someone can go over the grammar checker's examples in detail for me, so I can get the point? I don't see the humor, or what is odd about the examples, at all. Well, of course the examples following "instead of" are ungrammatical, but that's the point that the writer is making.

Bryan White said...

Yeah, I can't see a lot of people making these mistakes. Seems to me that most grammatical errors are more just the result of basic sloppiness, rather than this kind of awkward, technical, misapplication of the rules. These are mistakes a spam bot would make, not a human being. Besides, the only people bold enough the wield the word "whom" these days are people who know what they're doing with it.

(Or at least they think do.)

Ø said...

I think that what struck Jan about the examples had something to do with the commas.

"She bought the desk which he was selling" means something different from "She bought the desk, which he was selling", and the former is something you'd be more likely to want to say. And some sticklers would insist on "which" instead of "that" in the latter, to emphasize the distinction.

"They saw the play that got good reviews" is, to me, awkward. If you're trying to tell me that they saw the well-reviewed play rather than some other one, I'd be happier with "had good reviews" or "had got good reviews". It is sufficiently awkward that it leaves me unsure as to whether the other meaning was intended: "They saw the play, which ... "

Richard Hershberger said...


I think the point is that the grammar checker's examples are not mistakes native speakers would make. Who/whom are applied to people, and also to non-human that are regarded as like humans. A pet owner who regards the pets as part of the family is probably going to use human pronouns for them. Some car owners attribute human characteristics apply gendered personal pronouns to their cars. I can imagine one also using who/whom. A desk, though? Some writers do seem peculiarly attached to the tangible aspects of writing, but to anthropomorphize a desk seems a bit excessive. Even pathetically fallacious...

Marc Leavitt said...

Serendipitously,I referred to my son's dog as "whom" and Word caught me. I added it to the dictionary.

Gregory Lee said...

But if the examples are not mistakes anyone would actually make, then they serve all the better to illustrate and justify the rule that was given. You are supposed to agree that the ungrammatical examples given are in fact bad, so that you will understand the rule that was given and remember it.

I'm not saying it's a good rule that was given -- it's only partially right. The choice of relative pronoun or conjunction is really more complicated and interesting, but when relative clauses are restrictive and when you can personify are much more difficult matters for a grammar checker to explain.

malkie said...

@Richard Hershberger

"... to anthropomorphize a desk seems a bit excessive". What if said desk writes to you? Have you never received a memo "from the desk of XXX"?

William Safire wrote about desks that (or should I say "who") write.

Jan said...

What Richard said.
In quite a few decades of reading usage advice, I have never seen the instructor offering, as examples of what not to do, constructions that you never run across in the language of a native speaker. The "don't" example I expected here would be something like "The elephant who was his favorite," with the "correct" version being "the elephant which/that." Sure, the proffered examples are "bad," but they're not examples of an actual problem.

Ø, I wasn't focusing on the which/that choice here; I don't have a problem with restrictive "which" ("the desk which he was selling"), which is widely used in BrE and in US fiction, even if some editors eschew it. In any case that's a much larger issue!

Malkie, surely "from the desk of" is metonymy at most, not actual anthropomorphism?

Gregory Lee said...

By the way, "that" in relative clauses is not usually regarded as a relative pronoun by linguists, these days, but is instead identified with the "that" introducing the subordinate clause noun complement of, e.g., "the fact that she was here". One reason is "that" in relative clauses always introduces the clause, while a true relative pronoun is in general just part of a relative expression coming at the beginning of the relative clause (as in Churchill's famous example "up with which I will not put"). Thus, relative pronouns need not come at the beginning of their relative clause.

So the fact that "that" as a pronoun in other contexts refers to non-persons is not relevant to its use as a relative clause introducer.

Anonymous said...

This discussion makes me think of the Lord's Prayer. The general consensus in the UK seems to be that we don't like using a completely modernised version; however, it feels odd to say "Our Father which art in Heaven", as "which" would not nowadays be used when speaking of a person, so we say "who art" instead.
Kate (Derby, UK)