Simple Grammatical Rule: Who vs. That

I can’t stand this any longer! I’m reading my Sunday morning news online and getting more irritated by the moment. The who vs. that pet peeve of mine is gnashing its teeth and growling from every article I’ve read. One hour, 24 articles… every.single.one.

I eventually came back and started working for the person that I did the apprenticeship for…
[interview with a piercer]

…according to the person that leaked the shot …
[technologies report on cell-phone carriers]

…the drunk driver that injured the pedestrian…
[local car accident]

The neighbor that called police…
[city burglary report]

A****a said that was not the person that was wearing the dress at the time
[celebrity fashion]
(That sentence is a disaster in many ways!)

(But I did find a sentence I adore!)
How often and with whom you converse…
[social media report]

Who refers to people,that refers to things. This seems to me, the easiest of all grammatical rules to follow. Yet some would argue it is, in fact, not really a rule as much as a suggestion or a preference.

N.O. No. Bologna. Who is who. That is that.

I detest hearing these swapped about in conversation, in television, movies. Worst of all, reading who and that transposed like equals!

I have had this discussion with many people. I’ve even been referred to, historical research pointing out that and who where were written interchangeably as far back as the tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. Well Geoff, I prefer the great American authors of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The average, every day conversational speaker does not give it much thought. It is likely circumstance of upbringing, region, and dialect that determines patterns of speech. Writers, similarly, have a preference rather than a set rule. Often the character they are creating dictates the voice anyway. Editors may have their own preference, or even follow the rule. But if working for non-technical clients, they are most certainly going to respect the style of the author. Professors, teachers of English, grammar, creative writing… well, I am happy to say the majority I have spoken with believe the rule is static.

Notice I wrote, “the majority I have spoken with”. Short and simple is usually the best approach. However, let’s consider the many ways this sentence could have been written, and when who or that would be of best use, using the Simple Grammatical Rule outline.

Here is the most complicated version of the sentence:
The majority of educators who I have spoken with believe that the rule is static, not an option.

NO: The educators that I have spoken with…
WHY: that refers to things
FOLLOWING THE RULE: educators = people = who
YES: The educators who I have spoken with…

NO: The majority who I have spoken with…
WHY: who refers to people
FOLLOWING THE RULE: majority is a group: group = thing = that
YES: The majority that I have spoken with…

To keep things simple, edit! Boil a sentence down to its barest bone.
The majority I have spoken with…

Now I will change the subject of the sentence. *
The majority of educators I have spoken with believe that the rule is static, not an option.I am still talking about people and rules. But the people or the majority, are no longer the subject of the sentence. The rule is now the subject.

“NO: —- (there really isn’t a no here) —-
WHY: that refers to things
FOLLOWING THE RULE: rule = thing = that
YES:  …believe that the rule is static, not an option.

Again, to keep things simple, edit! Boil a sentence down to its barest bone.
  …believe the rule is static.

The majority I have spoken with believe the rule is static.

 
* SUBJECT leads into another Simple Grammatical Rule we'll discuss later.
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One comment on “Simple Grammatical Rule: Who vs. That

  1. Chelsi says:

    Essays like this are so imorptnat to broadening people’s horizons.

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