Thursday, July 14, 2011

That Vs. Who: Why It Matters

We are lifting this out of the comments because it makes such an important point so elegantly: 
I teach college English, and it is becoming more and more difficult for me to find students not using "that" as the default indicative pronoun when referring to people or groups of people in both speech and writing. The simple example I hammer into their questing noggins every semester is this:

People = Who/whom
Things (anything not human) = That (SPOGG: or which)

The rationale I give is also simple, yet I think quite profound:

Our society and culture depersonalize humanity -- individuals or groups of individuals -- too much as it is. Let us not contribute to that depersonalization any more, as it may ultimately depersonalize us all.

~ Prof. Peter R Jacoby
San Diego Mesa College

I am adorable.
We remember learning this lesson ourselves somewhere back in the Dark Ages. Thank you, Doug Thiel, for using the hammer on our writing when we were young and malleable.

A related issue arises with animals. We think any animal with a name is a "who."

So, "My cat Fluffy, who eats rats for breakfast, has surprisingly pleasant breath."

And then this: "The dolphin, which swam alongside the ship, gave the wrong directions to Portugal." 


Michele Thornton said...

Well put! I also love that this comment came from a teacher at my former community college. The school was my much-needed springboard to university.

John McIntyre said...

But "that" as a pronoun referring to groups or classes of people rather than individuals is well established in the language. "The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light" from the Authorized version is not bad English. It is not wrong.

It's an understandable temptation to present hard-and-fast "rules" to inexperienced writers, but at the college level we are supposed to be showing our students how to make intelligent discriminations.

Martha Brockenbrough said...

John, you make a good point about intelligent discriminations. There's always a place for those.

But murder is well established in the culture. That doesn't make it preferable.

For a milder example, the masculine as the generic pronoun is also widely accepted and not "wrong." There are better alternatives. My favorite experiment: Ask someone to draw a caveman. They will always draw a man. But there were cavewomen, too. It might seem silly to care about such things until you remember that in many parts of the world, women are denied so many rights and, arguably, even their essential humanity.

For me, the small distinctions in language can matter a great deal. We build the world out of words. In making intelligent discriminations, let's make ones that build a better world.

Beth said...

But if you ask someone to draw a caveman they should draw a man. If you asked them to draw a cave-person and they drew a man then that would be a slightly more interesting experiment.

Martha Brockenbrough said...

Beth, if you ask someone to draw a doctor, I'd bet the majority would draw a man, too.

John McIntyre said...

Earlier remarks amplified:

WordzGuy said...

If the only problem I saw in the writing of incoming students were a confusion about whether to use "that" or "who" in reference to a noun, this might be a fruitful discussion. (Although I agree with John and feel that handing out pre- and proscriptive rules for which people routinely find exceptions in everyday usage is actually counterproductive, as all it does is scare would-be writers about mostly irrelevant bugaboos.) An argument about whether using "that" dehumanizes its antecedent might be a useful topic in a 400-level seminar in gender studies or linguistic philosophy, among people who can marshal actual evidence from a broad sampling of written material, and who moreover are already facile with writing. But to burden those who are still gluing together their first truly cohesive paragraphs with ex cathedra statements about the supposed psychological damages wrought by the wrong relative pronouns is, like, not helpful.

MARC said...

I PREFER using who and whom when referring to people. I don't rule out that and which when it suits contextually.

John McIntyre said...

I'm not persuaded by the murder analogy, since "that" for people is not a crime, or even a violation of grammar. But since I am not persuasive, I offer "Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage": "In current usage, 'that' refers to persons or things. ..." The entry explains the origin of the superstition to the contrary in the 18th century. And Bryan Garner: "'Who' is the relative pronoun for human beings (though 'that' is also acceptable. ..."

Martha Brockenbrough said...

John, thanks for the amplification. I don't really get the harrumphing, though. The professor is just saying that "that" should not the default pronoun. He's not calling it a rule--really more of a point of style that reflects a humane view of language. And while the examples you cited in your post are certain elegant language, you can surely summon some perfectly dreadful sounding "thats" in reference to people. She's the one that's wearing the parka over there. It might not be wrong according to the dictionary, but that doesn't make it a pretty sentence.

I'm all for teachers continuing to pass on style points that raise the level of their students' writing. This is why I'll have no part of the silly Elements-of-Style-bashing that the troglodytes at certain linguistic sites love engaging in.

Yes, you can find inconsistencies in E.B. White's writing. Yes, they present things as "rules" that aren't. But, just as the world is a nicer place when people open doors and say thank you and obey other made-up rules, writing is also improved by attention to style. It doesn't mean that people can't later bend words to their will. But these verbal gymnastics are safer performed with the right muscles and technique.

I don't think anyone can seriously argue that most people today have that level of control over their language when they enter college, or even when they leave it.

Nor is it a good teaching technique to muddy the waters before students have a general sense of their depth.

It's easy for the academics to argue that all this prescriptive stuff is hogwash. They have tenure. For the rest of us, it's a useful framework to begin the lifelong work of mastering language.

John McIntyre said...

I can explain the harumphing.

The comment states a flat generalization. That is something that my student, and probably his, would take as a Rule.

It ignores the two classes of common exceptions that I cited in my post.

And in makes an assertion about "depersonalization" which, in light of established practice by literate writers over a span of centuries, would have to get a Scottish verdict of "not proven."

I of all people don't object to prescriptivism. I object to bad prescriptivism.
It also ignores statements to the contrary by reputable authorities on usage.

Julina said...

Indirectly related to this discussion, if I remember my Japanese grammar from 10 years ago, they have different versions of (loosely) "to be" - one for living/animate objects (dictionary form=iru) and one for non-living/inanimate objects (dictionary form=aru).

I wonder if they're having a similar problem w/ young people using "aru" for everything... maybe it's a global "depersonalization" trend. Or maybe it's just "lazy Americans" ;) Hmmm...

GenKnit said...

Look at the so-called literature students are reading these days. What you read affects how you write.

I grew up reading real literature, which used multi-syllabic words arranged in elegant sentences, with very few typographical errors. My children (ages 30 and 27) grew up reading books in school which had no words longer than two syllables. Guess how my children write? My daughter (college-educated and a very intelligent young woman) has no concept of the use of "who/whom" and "that." My son simply avoids writing, except on facebook—where it seems that if one uses proper sentence structure, one is considered a snob.

So, I reiterate: look at the alleged literature being presented in elementary, middle, and high school. College "literature" is no better.

Thank you for reading this.

Martha Brockenbrough said...

John, I am loving the debate. I hope that comes across. I disagree that it's a bad generalization for two reasons:

- The first is that none of your examples would be worsened by the substitution of who for that.
- The second is the reason the professor gave: that we must always remember each other's humanity. As a lifelong journalist, you might bristle at the notion of language having an agenda. As a former journalist (well, I still do some), I believe that *not* having an agenda--that not wanting to improve humanity through writing--is an agenda in and of itself. It is a vote for the status quo. No thank you.

And regarding children's literature: Some of the very best children's literature in history is being written today. A short list of some of the literary masters (the commercial ones are better known):

- M.T. Anderson
- Markus Zusak
- A.S. King
- Frances Hardinge
- Lian Hearn
- John Green
- Francisco X. Stork

I could go on, but there is plenty of intelligent, layered literature for children and teens. Schools have a general bias against assigning contemporary works (silly, silly). But it is a parent's responsibility to ensure there are good books in the home. You can't force a child to read, but the availability of excellent reading material certainly improves the chances it will be enjoyed. It can be hard to find these books, particularly if you don't go to independent bookstores or if you don't have access to a well-curated library. But the American Library Association Awards are always a good place to start. School Library Journal has excellent blogs with frequent reviews.

John McIntyre said...

Martha, when you and Professor jacoby are finished personalizing the texts of Handel's "Messiah," here are a couple more suggested by commenters on my blog:

So is it bad English to say ... We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; For he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother.

Angel: Hail, thou that art highly favoured!
Virgin: Mind your language, fellow.

Martha Brockenbrough said...

John, in both of your examples, the "that" is referring to people collectively, which is less of an ear-jangler than when it's with an individual, as was my example.

The professor and I aren't suggesting editing Handel--just offering guidance to students writing today.

The examples you cite (which are translations) work well in English with "that" because of the iambic meter. "That" is spoken lower in the mouth and reinforces the downbeat syllables. (Don't believe me? Try it. Feel where the words are formed.) It's a poetic choice made by sophisticated writers and specifically *not* the audience of people the professor was talking about.

When you know enough about writing to make the choice that best serves the meter, then you can make an intelligent case for doing so.

When you don't, well, in the opinion of SPOGG, you are better off following some basic style guidelines. You might even think of them as rules. Reasonable people know that rule-breaking happens, usually to best effect by people who know the "rules" they're breaking. Picasso, for example, could draw figures very well. That knowledge informed his later art.

To use another analogy: It's not illegal (in most places) to wear your pants belted below your butt. To many people, though, it looks ridiculous. It's legitimate style for plenty of young men. If there were a dictionary of pants, it would be in there. It doesn't make it a good idea. People can defend it, but why spend the energy? I wouldn't say it's worth passing a law to ban the below-the-butt pants. But I wouldn't defend the practice, either.

John McIntyre said...

Well, Martha, we have finally arrived at agreement. When you write that "in both of your examples, the 'that' is referring to people collectively, which is less of an ear-jangler than when it's with an individual," you have repeated the point I initially made.

The two major variants to "that" rather than "who" for people are for groups of people or unidentified individuals. I believe I already said that.

My objection to Professor Jacoby is not to his having provided a guideline for his students, but that it is a bad guideline that does not take into account common, acceptable variations. He wrote it as an EQUATION, for Fowler's sake. (And then went on to that preposterous stuff about "that" being depersonalizing. If he decides to explain how the Angel Gabriel depersonalizes Our Lady, I'll be interested to read it.)

Every semester I have to deal with students whom some previous instructor has saddled with oversimplified and misguided guidelines or "rules" about English grammar and usage. In the event that one of Professor Jacoby's students comes within range, I'll do my best to repair the damage.

Martha Brockenbrough said...

For Fowler's sake. Ha! And John, if your biggest problem is unburdening students of some of their rigidity, that is a good problem to have. Happy weekend!

John McIntyre said...

That would be the Archangel Gabriel.


GenKnit said...

I worked in the library in my high school, and was employed as a student in the library where I attended college. I volunteered in the library at my kids' elementary school. I am well aware that there is some good literature being written.

I feel compelled to assure you that MY children were exposed to good literature at home. We owned many of the Newbery and Caldecott Award winners during the time my children were in school. That being said, some of those award-winning books were, and are, less than stellar. Probably the problem is mine. My standards must be too high.

Probably I should refrain from commenting about such things in future.


Peter said...

While Prof. McIntyre professes that I am on a fool's errand to so "prescriptively" urge my students to begin to understand that specific words have specific meanings in both the grammatical and philosophical senses, I would like to mention that there is another reason for such prescriptions, especially with beginning writers. This reason comes from much study of linguistics and semiotics: it is through language we create reality. If one accepts this widely held (in the academy) belief, then I must ask, what sort of reality do we want to create? I favor one that depersonalizes the fewest people possible.

~ Peter R Jacoby

John McIntyre said...

A sweet and noble sentiment, to be sure, especially if there were anyone about who had been advocating depersonalization.

But it doesn't actually address any of the points of grammar and usage I mentioned, or the examples that have been presented, or the authorities cited.

Specific words indeed have specific meanings, and the standards of formal written English are established by recognized writers. "That" to refer to human beings in certain contexts is an established, non-colloquial usage with centuries of pedigree. The students that hear otherwise from Professor Jacoby are getting, most charitably, an oversimplification.

John McIntyre said...

Any of you who have more interest in evidence than bald assertion might have a look at two posts from 2008 by Motivated Grammar:

Peter said...

Prof. McIntyre,

I did not enter into this "dialogue" to win a fight. I just wanted to share with those who may want to consider trends in the evolution of the English language, and to look at one I find compelling. That is all.

But I sense you have either a desire or need to "win" this point. So, having other things to do and fall classes to prepare for, I shall leave the field to you. You have "won," sir.

How does it feel? Good, I hope.

~ Peter R Jacoby

John McIntyre said...

I may, like Dr. Johnson, "talk for victory," but it hardly seems like winning when one party retires from the field without having adressed the arguments of the other.

Warsaw Will said...

In TEFL, we teach that in defining (restrictive) relative clauses, who and that for people are given equal status, just as which and that have equal status for things.

But some people don't like that one either.

I've always thought the non-human equivalent to who is which, not that. Which is exactly what we see in non-defining relative clauses.

Gayle Millner said...

Will John or Peter get the last word in this thread? I am on the edge of my seat. Meanwhile, I appreciate the discussion. I was looking for a simple guideline, but am thankful for some elegant explanations and illustrations.