Episode 350: January 3, 2013
by Mignon Fogarty
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Today we’re going to talk about a grammar myth: that you can never use the word “that” to refer to people. Then we’ll get to the burning questions of whether your dog is an “it” or a “she” or "he" and whether you can talk about a table whose legs are scratched.
“Who” Versus “That”
First, let’s talk about “who” versus “that.”
Many people have been taught that you should never use the pronoun “that” to refer to a person—that a sentence such as “Girls that have long hair buy more scrunchies,” is wrong, and that it should be “Girls who have long hair buy more scrunchies.” I was taught that rule, but it turns out that it’s a myth.
It’s not wrong to use “who,” but it’s also not wrong to use “that.” I checked a bunch of major style guides. Garner’s Modern American Usage, the Chicago Manual of Style, Fowler’s Modern English Usage, and the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage all say that although it’s always fine to use “who,” it’s also fine to use “that.” For example, it’s fine to write something like “Girls that have long hair buy more scrunchies.”
It’s been done for a very long time and the objection to it is more recent. Chaucer and Shakespeare, for example, used “that” to refer to people, and Merriam-Webster notes that usage writers only started objecting to it in the early 1900s.
A Class Versus an Individual
I crafted that particular scrunchie sentence to highlight the instance where Fowler said using “that” is most common: when you’re writing about someone who represents a class rather than an individual person. In that sentence—”Girls that have long hair buy more scrunchies”—we’re talking about girls with long hair in general, not one specific girl.
That’s a little bit different from a sentence like “The girls who stole my scrunchie should give it back,” in which I’m talking about very specific girls. Fowler would say that it’s OK to use “that” in a sentence like that too, just that it’s less common than doing so in a sentence where the person represents a whole class of people like girls that have long hair, or boys that play soccer, or babies that cry.
Fowler also covers instances in which you have a human and an inanimate object together. In those instances you should clearly use “that,” especially when the inanimate object comes second: “I enjoy spending time with boys and songs that make me happy.”
General Grammar Versus Styles
Now I need to mention rules versus styles. Although in general grammar it’s not a hard-and-fast rule that you must use “who” to refer to people, certain style guides do require it. For example, if you’re following APA style, you are required to use “who” and not “that” to refer to humans.
“Who” or “That” for Pets
The Associated Press provides useful guidance about animals, presumably because their writers find themselves writing about pets often enough to need clarification. The AP Stylebook recommends using the pronouns “it” and “that” for animals unless you know the animal’s sex or the animal has a name.
For example, if you were writing about a cat and you didn’t know much about it, you’d write something like “The cat that was stuck in the tree peed on the firefighters.”
If the cat had a name, you’d write something like “Fluffy, the cat who was stuck in the tree, peed on the firefighters.”
If you only knew that it was a female or you were just using pronouns, you’d write something like “The cat who was stuck in the tree meowed at her owner.”
Again, we have style issues to deal with. For example, APA style has different recommendations. They want you to always use “that” when you refer to animals such as cats and rats, not “who.” This is just a guess, but I wonder whether the APA might stick with “that” for animals because, unlike Associated Press writers, APA writers are most often writing about lab animals instead of pets. Regardless, it’s important to remember that even though the general rules are flexible, the rules may be more rigid if you’re following a specific style guide, so be sure to check.
“Whose” for Inanimate Objects
Finally, we have the strange case where we use a form of “who” when we’re talking about inanimate objects: “whose.” Since modern English doesn’t have a separate possessive pronoun for inanimate objects, we use “whose” for both people and things. We can talk about the man whose legs were broken and the table whose legs were broken. Both are fine.
Occasionally, people think or have been taught that they can’t use “whose” for objects, but the style guides are clear that it’s fine. In fact, Merriam-Webster says, “The notion that ‘whose’ may not properly be used of anything except persons is a superstition.”
If it bothers you though, you can always rewrite the sentence. “The table whose legs were broken” can become something like “the table with the broken legs” or “the table that had broken legs.”
As always when we talk about myths and superstitions, I want you to know the facts, but it’s also important to remember that there are people out there who believe the myths and superstitions. If you want to play it safe, you can stick to the fake rules, but I want you to know why you’re doing it and to not spread myths yourself.
1. Garner, B. “Who,” Garner’s Modern American Usage, 3rd edition. Oxford University Press. 2009. p.862.
2. Garner, B. “That,” Garner’s Modern American Usage, third edition. Oxford University Press. 2009. p. 808.
3. “Relative pronouns defined,” Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edition. University of Chicago. Section 5.54. 2010.
4. Burchfield, R.W., ed. “That,” The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, 3rd edition. Oxford University Press. 1996. p.773.
5 “that,” Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, Incorporated. 1994. p. 896.
6. Christian, D., Jacobsen, S., and Minthorn, D., eds. “animals,” The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law, 2012 edition. http://www.apstylebook.com/online/?do=entry&id=175&src=AE (accessed January 3, 2013).
7. Krupa, T. “Who Versus That”, APA Style Blog, June 28, 2012. http://blog.apastyle.org/apastyle/2012/06/who-versus-that.html (accessed January 3, 2013)
8. “whose,” Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, Incorporated. 1994. p. 960.