You need a good sense of whom, or…

There’s an old debate over whether that as a relative pronoun can refer to people. As far as I’m concerned, of course it can. The usage is fully standard and has been for centuries. Briefly: that can be used to refer to people or things, which refers to things, and who(m) is reserved for people and animals:

the house that she lives in (or which)
something which has long been disputed (or that)
people who fuss over relative pronouns (or that)
Tabby, whom I adopted as a kitten, is four today. (or who)

Note, though, that that and which are less interchangeable in AmE than they are in BrE. (The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage has a helpful history.) Sometimes a distinction is made depending on whether an animal has a name: who for animals with names, that or which for animals without names. This is the AP Stylebook’s advice.

AP style does not allow that to refer to people, and neither does the New York Times Manual of Style and Usage.* This is style advice, which is very different to grammatical correctness. For the latter, we consult works more authoritative than style guides. Bryan Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage contains the following note:

That, of course, is permissible when referring to humans: the people that were present or the people who were present. Editors tend, however, to prefer the latter phrasing.

Which brings us neatly, our sense of irony to the fore, to a recent edit in the NYT. Garner wrote a commentary in its Room for Debate on the need to reform legal education in the United States. His article concludes as follows:

the future of continuing-legal-education seminars for the practicing lawyers – the kind whom I teach – looks very bright indeed.

But this is not what he wrote. That, not whom, was the relative pronoun in Garner’s original text. Apparently an editor “fixed” it before publication, “thereby changing the sense entirely,” as Garner remarked. Thus:

the future of continuing-legal-education seminars for the practicing lawyers – the kind that I teach – looks very bright indeed.

The parenthetical text between the dashes – “the kind ___ I teach” – was meant to refer to the seminars Garner teaches; after editorial interference, it referred to the lawyers who attend them. The edit was worse than unnecessary.

If practicing lawyers were the antecedent (i.e., what the relative pronoun relates back to), that would be grammatically fine, though it goes against NYT style. But it would make more sense in that instance to use whom, since this precludes the possible ambiguity: whom could refer only to the lawyers; that could refer to either the lawyers or the seminars. So a sensible reading would connect that to the seminars.

Presumably the two readings were not noticed, just one mistaken one, and the edit was made automatically to accord with house style. If there had been any doubt, the editor would surely have consulted a colleague, or some reference books, or if necessary the author himself. Maybe multiple editors agreed to it.

Regardless, the change was made and published and it undermined the sense of the text.

If I were editing prose from someone who writes dictionaries of law and English usage, I would expect the prose to be smooth and punctilious, and I would not introduce changes lightly. It’s a minor matter, but not an insignificant one: the “typographic oath” for editors is to do no harm.


* I don’t have a copy of the NYT manual, but I trust Merrill Perlman‘s report at the Columbia Journalism Review.


25 Responses to You need a good sense of whom, or…

  1. johnwcowan says:

    The typographic oath is a good beginning, and I’d then go on to the last of Wolcott Gibbs’s rules (PDF): “Try to preserve an author’s style, if he is an author and has a style.”

    In this case, though, I don’t see what Garner is fussing about. Whne he teaches the seminars, he teaches the lawyers: the difference is inconsequential.

  2. It could be argued that the antecedent is not ‘practicing lawyers’ but ‘the kind’, in which case ‘that’ might be preferable. Of course it is possible to avoid using a relative pronoun altogether when, as here, it is the object of a clause: ‘the kind I teach’.

    ‘That’ can certainly refer to a human antecedent in BrEng, but normally, I think, only when it introduces a defining relative clause, or what the authors of ‘The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language’ prefer, with good reason, to call an integrated relative clause.

  3. Stan says:

    John: Thank you very much for Gibbs’s rules, which I look forward to reading. “Do no harm” is meant only as a beginning, of course, one sound guideline among many. The NYT’s edit might not be especially consequential, but it reveals a failure to read the text properly. In another instance the difference could have been more substantial.

    Barrie: That’s true: that or whom refers to the kind, which in turn refers to seminars or practicing lawyers. I ignored this for simplicity’s sake, but I probably shouldn’t have. Omitting the pronoun altogether, as in the kind I teach, would have preserved the ambiguity that that helps (or should help) to avoid.

  4. Marc Leavitt says:

    While I agree with you – and while I understand the difference between style and grammer – the issue that has not been addressed in this brouhaha is the question of “feel” in usage. The use of “that” for animate objects is perfectly fine, but I contend that it “feels” better to use “who.” As to changing the meaning of Garner’s sentence; the editor was slavishly following the style guide. His brain wasn’t engaged. As a longtime editor, I can tell you that I’ve made many similarly foolish mistakes at 2 a.m. when facing a deadline. That doesn’t esxcuse the mistake, but perhaps it explains it.

  5. Yvonne says:

    When debating grammar rules with a former newspaper editor I was told that ‘which’ relates to a plural antecedent and ‘that’ to a singular antecedent. Thus ‘the parcels which he carried’ or ‘the parcel that he carried’. Is there any rule that supports this?

  6. Stan says:

    Marc: Those are fair points. I would normally use who when referring to a person, but I wanted to stress that there’s nothing necessarily wrong with using that. There are even times when it feels better, such as when referring to a group of people. As for brain-engagement, it’s quite likely that tiredness and the pressure of a deadline contributed to the oversight. My intention was not to castigate the editor(s) but to use the error to make some observations about style vs. grammar, pronoun use, and the importance of attentive editing.

    Yvonne: None that I know of. It sounds like a non-rule that someone conjured out of thin air, or arrived at by confusing two existing rules or conventions, e.g., the that/which–restrictive/non-restrictive pseudo-rule + the need for pronoun–antecedent agreement.

  7. Odette says:

    A thoroughly interesting blog entry for me (as per usual).
    As a foreigner, I never thought that ‘that’ could be used in relation to persons, for example… and it always sounded at least conceptually cacophonic, to me… I didn’t think it was a matter of opition / style, I actually thought it really was grammatically wrong but that is how I memorised things – and it does not necessarily mean I never bumped into bits of info suggesting the opposite. Quite possibly, I might have read without memorising. This is the best analysis on the subject, anyway, in my opinion.
    P.s.: re. law language… punctilious it is but smooth? Not necessarily, you know ;)

  8. Stan says:

    Thanks, Odette. I didn’t aim for a thorough treatment, just some loosely related thoughts and a brief rebuttal of the stubborn myth that that should not refer to people. There are a lot of these myths, and they are sometimes insisted upon quite fiercely, or they attain a creaky authority simply by persisting. If you find yourself wondering about any, feel free to ask; or take a look in MWDEU, which provides detailed historical analysis of contentious usages and commentary thereon – though it is too descriptivist for some tastes.
    Re. Law language: That’s true. :-)

  9. Odette says:

    Thank you! I shall certainly take advantage of your offer and suggested link, in due time :)

  10. heidenkind says:

    I have a serious problem with confusing that and which, something I only realized when I had a professor who was obsessed over the proper usage of ‘that.’ So I got into the habit of only using ‘which’ after a comma. I know there are rules that allow using ‘which’ without a comma, but I can never remember them.

  11. Kory Stamper says:

    Hear hear! regarding the point that these are style decisions and not points of grammar. As we say to our ESL/EFL correspondents, these questions of usage tend to be primarily issues of register and tone, not grammatical right and wrong.

    Incidentally, I have relatives who use the relative pronoun “what” with some regularity: “dance with them what brung you.” They think I am nose-in-the-air and too high for decent folk for rendering that as “dance with them that brung you.” It’s all a matter of context.

  12. Stan says:

    heidenkind: How to use that and which is a notoriously awkward pocket of usage commentary, with various authorities advising (and sometimes insisting upon) different styles. There’s a helpful summary here, and more articles on this page.

    Kory: It seems people can’t help trying to turn personal preferences into universal decrees: “This is the way I like it, so it’s the only acceptable way!” Language is a lot looser in some ways, and more restricted in others, than is generally acknowledged. And, as is often the case, those who know least, or know just a little, know it loudest. Thank you for the report of your relatives’ regional idiom. I know people who would be horrified by them what brung you; I find it charming, though it’s not in my idiolect.

  13. heidenkind: “That” versus “which” always trips me up too. I find this post pretty useful.

  14. Tom Guadagno says:

    “She thought of her old, English racer. She remembered that that was the bicycle that her sister had driven into the lake.” Stan, is this an acceptable sentence or should one of those “thats” be replaced by a “which”?

  15. Stan says:

    It’s acceptable, Tom, but I would remove at least one of the that‘s, because they’re crowding the sentence. So: (1) “She remembered that that was the bicycle her sister had driven into the lake”, (2) “She remembered that was the bicycle that her sister had driven into the lake”, or (3) “She remembered that was the bicycle her sister had driven into the lake.” You could change the that after bicycle to which, but you certainly don’t have to; I would use neither.

  16. Tom Guadagno says:

    Stan, thanks for editing. I appreciate it very much. I prefer(3)for its conciseness.
    And, I thank you for the correction, “one of the that’s” That’s very enlightening. :)

  17. […] parsed out the difference between yeah, yea, and yay, and Stan Carey explained that, which, who, and whom.  Dialect Blog dialogued on the General American English accent, and when price and prize don’t […]

  18. With “She remembered that that was the bicycle that her sister had ridden into the lake”, the third ‘that’ should not be replaced by a ‘which’, because it is a restrictive relative – i.e. it tells us that the bicycle we are talking about is precisely the one that her sister had ridden into the lake, whereas “the bicycle, which her sister had ridden into the lake” presupposes we already know which bicycle we are dealing with and merely mentions what her sister did with it, as an aside.

    Although ‘that’ and ‘which’ are often confused in informal, colloquial usage, they should be used accurately in serious or formal writing, where slips and confusion will be noticed (and will create an unfavourable impression, which is not a desirable thing in texts that need to impress).

    As regards the Bryan Garner issue, his problem IMHO was largely self-inflicted, as we naturally assume that the relative pronoun refers to the nearest noun to it (in this case ‘lawyers’); so if Garner had written “… – the kind of seminar that I teach – …”, for example, then there would have been no scope for ambiguity. Folks shouldn’t complain if they leave the door open for others to misunderstand them :).

  19. Stan says:

    Thanks for your considered comment, Oliver. You make a fair point about how Garner might have precluded the problem. Maybe he preferred to avoid sounding repetitive, and did not anticipate the misunderstanding.

    Some writers, editors and publishers abide by the that/which distinction you describe, especially in formal AmE, but it is not a grammatical requirement. Which can be used with restrictive clauses. It’s not a simple dichotomy that is confused in informal or colloquial usage, nor is it (necessarily) a slip or an inaccuracy, as you suggest. Their usage is more flexible than is sometimes supposed.

    There is extensive commentary attesting to this flexibility. I linked to a couple of online resources in an earlier comment; and here, for good measure, is the Chicago Manual of Style (16th edition, 6.22): “which can be substituted for that in a restrictive clause”. It notes, of course, the transatlantic difference I mentioned in the second paragraph of my post, and which is explored in greater detail in MWDEU, linked immediately thereafter.

  20. the ridger says:

    Certainly, many people still insist on which-hunting, but trying to insist on “that” for restrictive and “which” for non-restrictive clauses always founders on clauses where the relative is governed by a preposition (unless you don’t mind stranding, then you can get away with with the awkward “the book that he was speaking of”) or is in the possessive. Thus, I maintain, it’s a false rule.

  21. Stan says:

    I agree, Ridger. Even a cursory look at the words’ long histories shows the ‘rule’ to be ill-founded. Not only is restrictive which acceptable in standard English (some varieties more than others), but nonrestrictive that has its place too. Shakespeare, for example.

  22. […] the “people need who(m)” claim is obviously untrue, and it’s something that many others have already discussed. […]

  23. […] issue cropped up in a recent post about whom. A reader objected to restrictive which; I said restrictive that was not a grammatical requirement […]

  24. Santo says: I’ve taught English for years, and this is how I’ve taught those three words:
    that: refers to persons, things, or animals
    which: refers to things or animals (but not persons)
    who: refers to persons (but not things or animals)

  25. Stan says:

    Santo Aurelio: Thanks for your summary. Who is sometimes used to refer to animals.

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