I’ve been getting some great questions from readers lately, so this week we’re going to cut the treacle and get right to them.
Bob in Burbank writes: “I keep hearing people using ‘that’ when I think they should be using ‘who’ when referring to persons.” Bob’s examples include a line from the Stan Chambers book “News at 10”: “Now they existed only in the memories of the people that had experienced them.”
Bob asks: “Shouldn’t that be ‘who’ had experienced them since it is referring to people?”
Well, not necessarily.
The idea that only “who” can refer to people is a very pervasive myth — made all the more indestructible by the fact that it’s grounded in good logic. “Who,” clearly, refers to humans. “That” commonly refers to inanimate things. But it’s a mistake to interpret that logic as law (though I suspect many English teachers and editors do just that).
Yes, it’s often better — more precise — to use “who” for people. The Associated Press Stylebook tells its followers to observe the distinction and, as someone whose first knowledge of this stuff came from AP, I always try to do just that. But there’s no rule that says you can’t do the opposite. The “Oxford English Grammar” says so, the classic “Usage and Abusage” agrees and so does “Garner’s Modern American Usage”: “‘Who is the relative pronoun for human beings (though ‘that’ is also acceptable),” “Garner’s” tells us.
The second part of Bob’s question doesn’t work quite the same way. Bob cited a recent newspaper piece: “He was surprised to see that most of the cattle slaughtered there were former dairy cows who were already in bad shape on arrival.” Then Bob asked, “Is it ‘who’ or ‘that’ with animals?”
In this case, my sources agree it should have been “that.” That’s because animals we don’t think of as individuals generally get “that,” though pets and animals with names can take “who.”
Another e-mail comes from Joanne in Glendale, who wrote regarding my recent column on misplaced modifiers. Specifically, she wanted to share this recent headline: “Police say the 22-year-old hit an elderly pedestrian, who broke her wrist, then drove away.” Joanne’s observation: “I can only conclude that after he hit her, she then took his vehicle and drove away. Pretty amazing when she had just sustained a broken wrist!”
But Joanne caught me in a charitable mood. My response: “I can’t help but take pity on headline writers. They have to worry about so much stuff besides clarity — namely, squeezing an idea into a near-exact number of characters. Plus, often if they do their jobs perfectly, some page designer who’s been told to squeeze in another story ends up messing up their work. Of course, the bottom line is that you’re right: Newspapers should know how to communicate with more precision than that. Or at least they should know how to make hay with a story about elderly people who go Rambo on bad drivers by hijacking their cars — with or without broken wrists!”
With time for one more, I’ll squeeze in a question from Anonymous (if that is his real name) who wanted to know whether, when writing about academic grades, you should put quotation marks around the letter grade, use single quotation marks or let the letter stand on its own.
The rules governing quotation marks are loose enough that you could justify using them around a letter grade. But most style books agree that’s unnecessary, which is why the Los Angeles Times, for example, just uses a capital letter with no punctuation around it: Anonymous gets an A for asking a good question.
JUNE CASAGRANDE is a freelance writer and author of “Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies” and “Mortal Syntax: 101 Language Choices That Will Get You Clobbered by the Grammar Snobs — Even If You’re Right.” She may be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.