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Oh no, Mr. Phil!

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April November 30, 2009 08:20 PM

Unbelievable.* In the new After Deadline blog post, the Times's Philip Corbett makes this (retroactive) correction:

[Caption] Mike L. has remained a father to a daughter that wasnít really ďhis.Ē

Use "who" for people, not "that."

No, no, no. You can debate the advisability of that in any given sentence, but there is not, and never has been, a rule against using that to refer to people, as I reiterated in the Globe Sept. 27. (No, I don't imagine that the Times's usage guru is looking to me for advice. But surely he would value Bryan Garner's opinion, quoted below?)

Here's my rant, one more time:

NOT THAT AGAIN! Yes, the zombie rule that itís wrong to use that as a pronoun for a person is still undead. Iíve had several recent complaints from readers who think "the person that cuts the lawn" and "the woman that arrived before you," where that refers to a person, are improper English.

But no. This isnít even a bona fide zombie rule, because it never was fully alive. That has been applied to people for at least 1,000 years, and usage books have never said it shouldnít. But somehow, the notion that itís bad English stays in circulation.
There was a time, in the later 17th century, when the relative pronoun that fell out of favor among the literati, according to Merriam-Websterís Dictionary of English Usage. The dislike wasnít aimed at that for people, but at all uses of the relative pronoun; as late as 1752, an anonymous grammarian was still urging writers to avoid that entirely. But they didnít, and the fad was forgotten.
Of course, not every relative who or whom can be replaced with that. We no longer use that in nonrestrictive clauses, so we donít say "my father, that I resemble" or "Jane Smith, that is in my biology class." But in the usual formulations -- "women that succeed," "friends that gather each week," "the boy that I was" -- that has always been standard English.
There is no real debate about this; in the new Garnerís Modern American Usage, Bryan Garner says, "Itís a silly fetish to insist that who is the only relative pronoun that can refer to humans." And thatís that -- or at least it ought to be.

* Update: Not so unbelievable; turns out it's actually in the NYT stylebook. If I'd noticed it, I would have set them straight years ago.

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Rules and realities of English usage from Boston Globe Ideas columnist Jan Freeman.
Jan Freeman, a former Boston Globe editor, has been writing the weekly column ďThe WordĒ since 1997. E-mail her at

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