The thing about people is that we are very proud of being better than non-people. Perhaps the best example of this was the famous line from The Elephant Man, where the physically deformed but mentally capable elephant man has been corned by an angry mob and cries out: “I am not an animal! I am a human being!” While his first statement is not technically true, as humans are in fact animals, the key point remains — we think of ourselves as more than mere animals, and by gum, we’re proud of that. This belief in human exceptionalism is commonly used as evidence against evolution (“I am not a monkey!”), and it also leads to a common grammar complaint:
“People who (not that) use that incorrectly drive me batty.”
See, there are three different relative pronouns you can use to introduce a relative clause:
(1a) The house that I grew up in
(1b) The pinecone which fell from the tree onto my head
(1c) The calligrapher who ruined my last birthday
At issue here is whether that would be acceptable as the relative pronoun in (1c).
Why wouldn’t that be okay? Well, the relative clause is modifying calligrapher, which is (almost certainly) a human. The problem is that people don’t take kindly to being referred to as thats. Think of the indignation with which Obama supporters met McCain’s “that one” remark and you get the idea of how much people don’t like to be thats. (Inanimate objects do not exhibit the same ire at being referred to as whos, though that may be because no one would use who as a relative pronoun for an inanimate object.) So here’s the question: is that an acceptable HRRP (human-referring relative pronoun)?
Unlike the anti-evolution argument, which relatively few people find compelling, a wide range of people believe that it’s wrong to use that as a HRRP. And not just fringe people, either. For instance, you’ll note that Alfred Hitchcock called his movie The Man Who Knew Too Much, and that Oliver Sacks titled his book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Yet there remain those who freely use that as a HRRP. I’m thinking here of The People That Time Forgot, a largely forgotten sci-fi movie, and All The Man That I Need, a largely forgotten Whitney Houston song. (It is worth noting here that the who-titled objects listed here have been more successful than the that-titled ones, so if you are naming an artistic enterprise, it appears you would be well-served to follow the prescriptivists’ advice and use who with humans.)
But what of the grammar? Is it fair to be driven batty by the title of All the Man That I Need, rather than by the triteness of the lyrics? The answer, as it turns out, is complicated. Well, that’s not entirely accurate; the answer is simple: probably not. But the evidence for this is a bit more complex. I’ll address the issue in three separate posts. The current post looks at the history of the that/who battle, the next will look at situations where one or the other is preferred in modern usage, and the last will investigate the thorny issue of non-human animates.
So let’s start in on the historical evidence. According to the MWDEU, that was the first relative pronoun on the scene, existing at least since Middle English. Which came next, followed by who(m); both already existed in the language, but only began to be used as relative pronouns in the 14th and 15th centuries. The three relative pronouns were more or less interchangeable in the early days. Then, in the 17th century, that fell into disrepute and was ousted from literary usage. That returned from its exile eventually, but things were never the same between the three. The biggest change from our perspective is that the usurpers who and whom claimed they were the rightful HRRPs, that humans no longer were within that‘s domain. These pretenders to the throne were supported by many 18th century grammarians, who sought to return that to ignominy.
Against the grammarians, that fought valiantly and eventually returned triumphantly to its place as the default relative pronoun and once again became an acceptable HRRP. However, remnants of the grammarians’ crusade ripple through to the present day. MWDEU cites carryover from this period as a possible source of the “apparently common, yet unfounded, notion” that that is not an acceptable HRRP.
This history tells us a few things. The first is that relative pronouns have been in flux throughout Modern English, and so we can’t look too far back in history for evidence of standard usage for relative pronouns. The second is that you can’t say that logic dictates that who must be the HRRP, since who wasn’t even an option till the 15th century, didn’t rise to prominence until the 17th, and hasn’t managed to fully supplant that. Humans don’t historically require who, that much is clear. But given the incessant changes in relative pronoun behavior over the years, could it be that nowadays humans do require who?
As it turns out, the modern truth about HRRPs is somewhat more subtle that one might expect, and just might illustrate an interesting psycholinguistic point. I’ll address this issue in the next post.
Summary: Historically, there’s no problem with using that in a relative clause modifying a person.