Grammar! "That" versus "which" ok. But "that" versus "who"?

Hi! Just looking for some feedback to help me settle a bet with anther person in my student teaching cohort. We’ve been discussing grammar a lot recently, and we covered the whole “that” versus “which” rule pretty clearly, with no debate. But we continue to dispute about the appropriateness of using "that’ instead of “who”:

The boy who had cooties was sent to the nurse’s office.

versus

The boy that had cooties was sent to the nurse’s office.

My opponent argues that the latter construction is acceptable, while I disagree: the way I see it, if the rationale for using “that” instead of “who” is to tighten up the specificity in the same fashion you would choose between “that” and “which,” then simply exclusion of commas around the “who” should serve that purpose here:

The boy who had cooties was sent to the nurse’s office.

versus

The boy, who had cooties, was sent to the nurse’s office.

For the sake of argument, we’re agreed to restrict our debate to a purely prescriptivist interpretation. I forgot to clear this with her, but I’d also like to restrict any exemplars to the period after, say, Daniel Webster (ie, no fair saying “but Chaucer did it that way!”)

The opponent on this way smarter than me about grammar and I would almost always defer to her on such matters, but I’m feeling pretty uptight about this one; it just offends my sense of order. :smiley:

So any suggestions on authoritative references? Should I just quietly eat my hat and sit down?
Thoughts?

It’s grammatically acceptable, but it’s a bit rude.

“That” may be used to indicate either people or things.

My favorite usage guide, A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, by Bryan A. Garner, is unfortunately not perfectly clear on this one. At one point it says

A little bit later in the same entry, he writes

I have always used the first guideline, who for people, that for everything else.

IME, it’s best to use “who” for people, regardless of context, and which/that for inanimates, which will vary based on the exact meaning of the sentence.

I once did a mini-rant on people who used “that” instead of “who” to refer to people, and I was rapidly torn a new one as an elitist and prescriptivist and other bad things.

So I am glad to find a few people who still prefer to honor humans by referring to them as “who” instead of “that”. Thank you all.

I don’t have any authority for my position except a) it seems more respectful, b) it makes sense to me, and c) that’s how my mother taught me.
Roddy

Yep, use “who.” The boy’s a person, not a thing, and it’s just nice to refer to him as such. The other’s correct, but dismissive.

There’s elitist and prescriptivist, and then there’s trying to write properly and elegantly. I aim for the latter - it just makes the world a slightly better place. :slight_smile:

It ight have been a regional oddity, or an educational flaw, or something else entirely, but my father who grew up in rural Nova Scotia, Canada used to use “what” instead of either “that” or “who” in sentences such as “The boy what delivered the grocercies was very polite.”

I enjoy using constructions like that myself, but it’s probably a result of having been raised on Monty Python. “It’s people like you what cause unrest!”

I am The Midnight Bomber What Bombs At Midnight!

But I’m a linguist, so I am going to give you both a theoretical and a descriptive interpretation, which you can use to decide whether you want to take the prescriptivist stance in your own writing.

First, the theoretical interpretation. According to modern syntactic theory, relative clauses are always set up with a complementizer (that), as well as the relative pronoun (who, which, etc.) Different languages handle this differently-- in some languages, it is possible or obligatory to pronounce both the complementizer and the relative pronoun. So-called ‘doubly marked’ relative clauses are attested in Middle English and Bavarian, and also appear in spoken English without anyone consciously noticing them. In other languages, the complementizer or the relative pronoun are not pronounced. In other words, there is no functional syntactic difference between using who/which and that. You can read a better theoretical explanation here.

Now, the descriptive interpretation. What do people actually use in written English? The popular linguistics blog Language Log has played around with this idea on occasion-- see for instance this and this and this. The bottom line: While both possibilities appear enough times that they should both be considered grammatical, the actual percentages one way or the other may be skewed.

My own pronouncement as a professional linguist: They’re both OK. If you’re a writer, you can use your own judgment about which sounds better in a particular phrase.

“That” (and “it”) when referring to people, even those of unkown sex, always strikes me as cold and demeaning, but that’s probably because English isn’t my first language, and in my native tongue (Dutch) you just don’t use those words when referring to humans. Even using “it” for animals like mammals feels off (and we don’t have any other sex-neutral equivalent).

One exception I can think off “It’s a boy”. After that, in Dutch, it’s always either “he” or “she”.

A limerick whose author I have long forgotten, but not the limerick is as follows:

As a beauty I am no great star;
There are others more beautiful by far;
But my face, I don’t mind it
Because I’m behind it.
It’s the people in front that I jar.

Now, I realize that this is the silliest of the poetic genre, but “that” sure sounds a lot better than “whom.”.

“That” may be acceptable but, as James Kilpatrick would say, “It clunks”. Stick with “who”.

[quote=“F.Pu-du-he-pa-as, post:12, topic:533017”]

So-called ‘doubly marked’ relative clauses are attested in Middle English and Bavarian, and also appear in spoken English without anyone consciously noticing them.

[QUOTE]

Huh? Can you give a modern English example of this? Surely no-one would say “The boy that who had cooties…”

[quote=“F.Pu-du-he-pa-as, post:12, topic:533017”]

In other languages, the complementizer or the relative pronoun are not pronounced.

[QUOTE]

So it is still there, even though no-one says it? :dubious:

I thought James J. Kilpatrick was struck down as a grammar expert by this Board years ago.

There are some examples in the syntax textbook chapter I gave a link for. Some of the examples from modern English include:

According to current theories of generative syntax, yes.