Who or That – That Is The Question
This is a guest post by Charles Ray. If you want to write for Daily Writing Tips check the guidelines here.
Some might think me an old fashioned, stuffy person when it comes to grammar. I realize that language, whether written or spoken, is a living thing, and that it changes with time; but, there are some modern conventions that I have problems with. Some things that young people say and write these days grate on my ear, and I resist them with all my might.
One of the conventions that really gets my dander up is the use of ‘that’ in sentences when logic, and my ear, tells me that ‘who’ would be more appropriate. Here, for instance, is a sentence I encountered recently in a paper written by a college graduate: “The judge that decided the case came from the lower court.” Now, I assume the judge in this sentence is human, and when I struggled with English grammar many decades ago, this sentence would have earned red marks all over the page – and quite likely a failing grade. I would have been told in no uncertain terms that the correct formulation is, “The judge who. . .”
I have been chided by many of my colleagues for my fussiness over this particular issue; and it is just one of many modern grammatical conventions that send me into orbit when I encounter them. They’ve pointed out that this is not ‘incorrect,’ and besides, it has become accepted usage among a large number of writers.
Well, not this writer. Correct, it might be, and I’m not entirely convinced of that, but it just doesn’t sound right. It grates on my ear when I hear or read it. Just because a lot of people do something doesn’t make it the right and proper thing to do.
In my dictionary, one of the definitions of ‘that’ is, “Adj. Being the one singled out or understood.” ‘Who,’ on the other hand, is defined as “What or which persons used as a relative pronoun to introduce a clause when the antecedent is a human, or is understood to be a human.”
From these definitions, I will grant there is some merit to the argument that using ‘that’ instead of ‘who’ is not incorrect, per se. But, when we write, the purpose is to communicate, and when a ‘correct’ convention gets in the way of communication, it is ‘wrong.’ The language and its grammar are constantly changing, but this is no reason for us to blithely accept each change. We should in fact firmly resist any change until it is proven to be not merely correct, but right. I have not been convinced that substituting ‘that’ for ‘who’ is right, and until I am, I will continue to be the grammar cop who stands in the middle of the street with hands out saying, “Stop!” And, that is all I have to say about ‘that.’