Yes, I lost my temper.

Coming across an innocuous Twitter poll on usage, I found people objecting to that as a relative pronoun with human antecedents as “wrong” and even “dehumanizing.” So I commented with a blunt “Objections to ‘that’ are stupid and uninformed.”


A little later, I returned with a somewhat less rude “Look, every reputable grammarian, including Bryan Garner and all four editions of Fowler, makes it plain that ‘that’ can be used for human beings, and always has been in English. Insisting otherwise is misinformed, and insisting otherwise in the face of evidence is stupid.”

And then, to the inevitable pushback: “It's not just grammarians who accept ‘that’ as legitimately referring to human beings, but also speakers and writers of English for half a dozen centuries.”

I was mistaken. That has been a relative pronoun in English referring to human beings for thirteen centuries. The Oxford English Dictionary entry labels it “The ordinary use: referring to persons and things” and begins its citations in A.D. 825. In Modern English it cites the Wycliffe Bible of 1526: “The people that dwelte in darknessis.”

That instance points to one of the common uses of the relative pronoun, to refer to a group of human beings. The Authorized Version of 1611 also has “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Isaiah 9:2). (Have none of the people who object to this use of the pronoun ever attended a performance of Handel’s Messiah?)

Fowler’s concedes that there is “a widely held belief that that as a relative pronoun should never be used when the antecedent is personal.” But it cites centuries of such use and concludes that that is perfectly permissible “when the antecedent is human but representative of a class.”

There is a further occasion on which that with a human antecedent is perfectly acceptable: a context in which the human being is an unknown person. A fine example, which I have quoted in previous posts, is the song in Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun, “The girl that I marry will have to be / As soft and pink as a nursery.” Of all the girls in the world, the one that I will marry will have these qualities.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage suggests that a tendency in the eighteenth century to deplore that may have reflected a preference for who and which as “conforming to the Latin relative pronouns (that having no Latin correlative).” MWDEU surmises that “some carryover from the 18th-century dislike of that has produced the apparently common, yet unfounded, notion that that may be used to refer only to things.”

MWDEU sums up: “That is definitely standard when used of persons.”

Garner’s Modern American Usage is brisk: “Who is the relative pronoun for human beings (though that is also acceptable). …”

There you have it. I have no hope, after many online exchanges on language, that evidence and argument will sway anyone who cannot get beyond an oversimplification heard in ninth-grade English class, or who has arbitrarily concluded that an English word inoffensive since before the Normans crossed the water is “dehumanizing.”

No, it is you, best beloved, my readers, on whom I pin my hopes.