A columnist that takes a stand on shaky ground

Someone has drawn my attention to a New York Times column from April in which Frank Bruni imagines that the pronoun who is endangered, increasingly supplanted by that. A portion of his jeremiad:

"Instead of saying 'people who,' Donald Trump said 'people that.' Marco Rubio followed suit. Even Jeb Bush, putatively the brainy one, was 'that'-ing when he should have been 'who'-ing, so I was cringing when I should have been oohing.


"It's always a dangerous thing when politicians get near the English language: Run for the exits and cover the children's ears. But this bit of wreckage particularly bothered me. This was who, a pronoun that acknowledges our humanity, our personhood, separating us from the flotsam and jetsam out there. We're supposed to refer to 'the trash that' we took out or 'the table that' we discovered at a flea market. We're not supposed to refer to 'people that call my office' (Rubio) or 'people that come with a legal visa and overstay' (Bush).

"Or so I always assumed, but this nicety is clearly falling by the wayside, and I can't shake the feeling that its plunge is part of a larger story, a reflection of so much else that is going wrong in this warped world of ours."*

The larger story here is uninformed whingeing about a completely imaginary decline of the English language.

That, as one can discover by consulting the Oxford English Dictionary, is a pronoun that has been used to refer to people since Beowulf. There is an entry in H.W. Fowler's Modern English Usage (ninety years ago!) pointing out that the who/people, that/objects distinction does not actually exist. The fourth edition of Garner's Modern English Usage is curt: "Is it permissible to say people that, or must one say people who? The answer is that people that has always been good English, and it's a silly fetish to insist that who is the only relative pronoun that can refer to humans."

It is perfectly acceptable to use that to refer to a group of persons or an unknown person, as Jeremy Butterfield concisely points out in the fourth edition of Fowler's: "That is often used in contexts in which the antecedent is animate but not human (a white poodle that sported a red hair bow), and also in contexts where the antecedent is human but representative of a class (a baby that cries in unsocial hours; a fellow that sells a bracelet is not necessarily interested in people). That can also replace who (or whom) when the reference is non-specific, as in The person that I saw was definitely a woman."

The examples I have used in previous attempts to demolish this silly fetish are the Authorized Version of Isaiah's "The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light" (group or class of people) and Irving Berlin's "The girl that I marry will have to be / A soft and pink as a nursery" (unknown person).

Mr. Bruni is not unaware of the evidence. He concedes that Merriam-Webster and the American Heritage Dictionary register these uses of that as standard in English. He took the trouble to consult Mary Norris, the former New Yorker copy editor and author of Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, who insists on who for people, and "Connie Eble, the resident grammar guru at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, [who] told me that she'll shepherd students toward 'who' and 'whom' even though she acknowledges the historical and technical validity of 'that.' "

Roll that last one around on your tongue for a moment. That has historical validity, used, Jeremy Butterfield points out, since Chaucer, Langland, and Wycliffe. And it is "technically"—that is "grammatically"—correct, but evidently too subtle for Chapel Hill students.

And the evidence, if we can use the word for unsupported opinion, for the increasing prevalence of that over who is a handful of sentences and the feeling at Chapel Hill that the pronoun is gaining ascendance. We are left to suspect a manifestation of the frequency illusion, Arnold Zwicky's term for the belief that something you happen to notice is particularly frequent.

Another term Arnold Zwicky coined is the zombie rule, an oversimplified or flat-out erroneous "rule" of usage that persists no matter how many times it has been exposed as bogus. The schoolroom oversimplification of that/who usage is precisely one such zombie rule.

We have seen this sort of thing before. A columnist, running low on inspiration, meets the day's quota by railing against the Decline of Proper English, the awful abbreviations and text-speak of the Young People, and "this hypercasual culture of ours." Because he is a New York Times columnist, he doesn't settle for mere assertion but consults authorities and evidence, and then, because he is a New York Times columnist, he blithely ignores all evidence that does not match his preconceived view.

We wind up with a column that, while purporting to uphold the standards of English usage, attacks a usage that has been standard in English for more than seven centuries.

* The fact of the matter is that whom is the pronoun in decline. Who is doing swell, assuming many of the duties of the fading whom.