"who" vs. "that"

Arnold Zwicky zwicky at STANFORD.EDU
Sun Jul 26 16:54:40 UTC 2009

On Jul 26, 2009, at 7:52 AM, Bill Palmer wrote:

> A current Kellogg's Special K commercial claims, "Research shows women
> THAT eat breakfast have fewer problems with weight" (last few words
> may
> not be exactly right, but you get the picture)
> I would have said "...women WHO...", because it just sounds more
> natural.

well, natural for you.  it turns out that many other people have a
different opinion; these people have the restrictive relativizer
"that" for human beings on some occasions, "who" on other occasions.

>  Are there any "prescriptions" for this?

oh my, yes.  there is some tradition among usage critics for
disparaging human "that" -- people insisting that "that" can be used
only of things.  MWDEU's entry on "that" (section 2) takes up the
issue.  things are complex, in part because of the history of the
thing: "that" was the older all-purpose restrictive relativizer, but
fell out of favor (as against "which" and "who") in the 17th century,
but then came back in the early 18th century.

MWDEU's summary:

   In current usage, _that_ refers to persons or things, _which_
chiefly to things and rarely to subhuman animals, _who_ chiefly to
persons and sometimes to animals.  _That_ is definitely standard when
used of persons.

[i'm sure this topic has come up before, several times, on ADS-L, and
it certainly has come up on Language Log several times (though it's
hard to search for the topic in these places).  in addition, virtually
every list of " "rules" that aren't rules" (usage fictions, whatever
you call them)  -- there are quite a lot of such lists, only a few of
them composed by linguists -- has human "that" on it, as a speciously
proscribed usage.  most recently, there's O'Conner & Kellerman,
Origins of the Specious, with a section ("Who's That?", pp. 38-9) on
human "that".]

while i'm posting, let me give my semi-annual advice to readers of
this mailing list: if you're interested in english grammar and usage
(regardless of your educational background or professional status),
then you should get a copy of Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English
Usage, and *use it*.  it's not expensive, and it's chock-full of
wonderful stuff, including answers to many questions asked on ADS-L.

i don't resent extracting stuff from the on-line OED, because many
readers don't have easy (or cheap) access to it.  but after a while, i
do start resenting typing in stuff from MWDEU, when regular readers of
this list who are interested in questions of grammar and usage can so
easily acquire their own copy.


The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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