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Verbal Energy

People, companies, elephants - it's all relative.

Our choice of pronouns gives clues about how we think about humans, animals, and corporations.

By Ruth Walker / March 28, 2012



An amateur grammarian buttonholed me at a social gathering recently, seeking support for her view that the use of that as a relative pronoun referring to people is just plain wrong. She meant in a sentence such as "The people that live next door are originally from New York," rather than "The people who live next door...." That, or who, "relates" the "live next door" clause to the part about "originally from New York."

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I hesitated. Yes, normally one says "who," but I didn't think it was a hard and fast rule. So I hedged: "If you always use 'who' in situations like that, you'll never go wrong."

Now I read in the Tip of the Week column from the newsletter Copyediting that many people have worked up quite a head of steam about this – and they are wrong.

Editor Erin Brenner writes, "Using the relative pronoun that for people is acceptable. Really. It's been used that way since 825, says the 'Oxford English Dictionary.' "

She quotes "Garner's Modern American Usage" to buttress her case: "People that has always been good English, and it's a silly fetish to insist that who is the only relative pronoun that can refer to humans."

She provides a helpful little chart with guidance for pronouns for people and things, with a footnote that, when it comes to animals, "[u]sage will depend" on how the author views them.

I'd add that the "people that" construction also helps avoid mistakes with who and whom. That may be too compassionate a view for some sticklers. But sometimes even one who knows the who/whom rules will want to use that in contexts where who is incorrect and whom will seem pedantic.

What about a company? Is it a "who" or a "that"? Mitt Romney's line "Corporations are people, too" notwithstanding, a company is a "that" or a "which" when it comes to relative clauses – not a "who." For example: "The company that hired Joe gave him a good salary and relocation package."

I would have thought this was a settled matter, but Ms. Brenner sees evidence of "companies who" and wonders whether this means people think of companies as individuals. That seems different from thinking of companies as consisting of individuals, which seems to have been Mr. Romney's idea, since he went on to say, "Everything corporations earn ultimately goes to people."

Finally, what about elephants? Of course this is a serious question. In its September 2011 issue, National Geographic published a deeply touching piece by Charles Siebert, with photos by Michael Nichols, on the efforts of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, in Kenya, to nurture orphaned baby elephants and return them to the wild. The process takes years, and the moments of connection between man and pachyderm are poignantly overshadowed by the fact that it's human poachers who orphaned many of these creatures in the first place.

The report prompted this, from a California reader, in the January letters column: "When reading, I kept mentally changing the relative pronoun 'that' to 'who' for each of the elephants introduced to us. I know that grammar rules say we should use 'who' only for people, but for this story I felt like 'that' was just too impersonal. These wonderful baby animals have names, intelligence, feelings of love, joy, jealousy, and fear, family rites, and (apparently) rituals. For me, that qualifies them to be whos."

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