Over the top!

Children, run out and play in the sunshine. Mr. John has gotten into one of his states. There may be shouting.

I tell you, blogging about usage is like fighting on the Somme in 1916. You keep going back and forth, back and forth over the same stinking patch of worthless mud. Today, Martha Brockenbrough reopened the “that vs. who” offensive at The Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar, and I’m vaulting over the parapet one more time.

She quotes a professor at San Diego Mesa College to this effect:

I teach college English, and it is becoming more and more difficult for me to find students not using "that" as the default indicative pronoun when referring to people or groups of people in both speech and writing. The simple example I hammer into their questing noggins every semester is this:

People = Who/whom Things (anything not human) = That (SPOGG: or which)

The rationale I give is also simple, yet I think quite profound:

Our society and culture depersonalize humanity -- individuals or groups of individuals -- too much as it is. Let us not contribute to that depersonalization any more, as it may ultimately depersonalize us all.

This advice is elegant, simple, and wrong.

For one thing, pets and other named animals are routinely personalized. Just try to tell weeping little Angela that she should say, “We will miss our little Fluffy, that [or which} was such a sweet cat.”

For another, while it may be dismissive or depersonalizing to apply that to an identifiable person, it is common, and has been common for a long time, to refer to groups of people or an unknown person with that:

“The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light.”

“All people that on earth do dwell, / Sing to the Lord with cheerful voice.”

“The girl that I marry will have to be / As soft and pink as a nursery.”

If you want to take on the Authorized Version, Hymns Ancient and Modern, and Irving Berlin, go ahead; but I think you’re fighting above your weight.

Many of our students come to us woefully unskilled in English usage. They have either been taught nothing or taught rubbish: A paragraph is five sentences. Don’t split infinitives or use the passive voice—not that they can reliably identify either.

We should neither bemoan their ignorance nor preen ourselves over our superior accomplishments. They come to us to learn what they did not previously know, and our task is to instruct them. While it may be tempting to guide them through the thicket of English usage by giving them simplistic “rules,” we do them no favor if we fail to train them to make intelligent distinctions about the ways that literate people actually use the language.



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