"who" vs. "that"

Arnold Zwicky zwicky at STANFORD.EDU
Mon Jul 27 13:54:37 UTC 2009

On Jul 27, 2009, at 5:29 AM, Amy West wrote:

> When I first noticed this when I started teaching composition, I
> asked the question "What Would Gil Do?" So I checked MWDEU, read the
> entry, and thereafter trod very lightly where I saw "that" used where
> I would have chosen "who".
> ---Amy West
>> Date:    Sun, 26 Jul 2009 09:54:40 -0700
>> From:    Arnold Zwicky <zwicky at STANFORD.EDU>
>> Subject: Re: "who" vs. "that"
>> 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.

mostly i'm quoting amy's posting because i wanted to see "What Would
Gil Do?" again.  [that's E. Ward Gilman, editor of MWDEU.]

but there are some interesting empirical questions here.  there's some
suggestion in earlier comments that usage of human "that" (that is,
"that" used as a restrictive relativizer with an antecedent denoting a
human being) has been increasing, and also that it's more frequent in
the US than in the UK.  such impressions aren't necessarily accurate
assessments of the facts, of course, so they should be checked.

on the increasing-with-time front, there are two things to look at:
holding genre constant, look at the frequency of human "that" (vs.
human "who") in texts from different time periods; holding at least
some social variables constant, look at the frequency (in writing and
speech) of human "that" from people of different age groups.  on the
US/UK front, there are again things to control for (it might be that
northern and Scots speakers have somewhat different systems, for
example); you'll want to compare samples from roughly comparable
contexts (college-student writing, journalistic writing of some
specific type).  (and i haven't even mentioned Australian, Canadian,
etc. varieties.)

i recall, from thinking idly about this topic some time ago, that
there are probably relevant syntactic factors as well: relatives with
indefinite-pronoun antecedents vs. others ("anyone that/who" vs. "any
woman that/who"), function of the relativizer within the relative
clause ("any woman that/who sees you" vs. "any woman that/who you
see"), etc.

i'm hoping that some small part of this has already been studied.


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