September 12, 2004

That's not how that works

A few days ago, Geoff Pullum pointed out that journalists sometimes assert things about English usage that are easy to check, and turn out to be spectacularly false. In particular, he took to task a Australian who unwisely stated that "It's difficult to find a piece of writing in the mainstream press which mentions the word 'bisexual' without finding that it is immediately followed by the word 'chic'." As Geoff demonstrated, you can check these things. And these days, people do. So perhaps we can hope that the era of WCFCYA will eventually overcome the tendency of self-appointed language experts to make stuff up, at least if they want to keep charging money for their expertise.

The folks at English Plus offer the Grammar Slammer ("Deluxe with Spelling and Grammar Checkers", for $49). On their website, they also offer for free an alphabetized list of Common Mistakes and Tricky Choices, which is a mixture of useful guidance (e.g. on the difference between accept and except) and more dubious advice.

One of the pages on this site is entitled "Using That, Which, and Who as Relative Pronouns", and explains that

In modern speech, which refers only to things. Who (or its forms whom and whose) refers only to people. That normally refers to things but it may refer to a class or type of person.

Examples: That is a book which I need for the class.

These are the books that I need for the class.

He is the man who will be teaching the class.

They are the type of people who would lie to their mothers.

They are the type of people that would lie to their mothers.
(That is OK here because it is a class or type.)

There are two problems here. The first mistake is so trivial that it's shocking to find an apparently rational person asserting it, in a serious context, to be read by others who know the English language and have minimally intact powers of observation and memory. I'm referring to the claim that English relative clauses referring to humans can't be introduced by that, unless the reference is to a "class or type of person". Does anyone really think that "He's the man that will be teaching the class" is ungrammatical? Does anyone really believe that avoiding similar uses of that is a norm that writers and speakers of English aspire to?

If so, a few minutes reading the morning papers should set them straight. Searching the recent stories indexed by Google News, I found these examples in a couple of minutes:

There were three people that I thought about that morning.
And it will be coop care — so it will be controlled by the people that belong to it.

The other incident involved a three-year-old boy that was involved in the elementary school program

Police claim Johnson took a six-month-old girl that he believes he fathered and disappeared in July.
The man that Legan replaced, former state Sen. David Klarich, R-Ballwin, served for six months.
The woman that accused California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of groping her has dropped her lawsuit against the politician.
Michelle Thompson was among agency workers that lined the ballpark walkway to greet volunteers and donors.
The occasion was a protest at the home store of Fabian Vera, the manager that has served as a full-time union buster at the location where Daniel works.
Omarr Conner is a player that we recruited, and we know what he did in high school.
The defense returns 9 players that started multiple games last year.
While the rain aided in some areas, those area farmers that were unfinished with harvest have suffered mightily from the precipitation.
Police said the farmer that shot a man in Malaekahana Valley had been stolen from before.

These relative clauses refer to specific individuals or sets of individuals, not the sort of hypothetical class or type ("the type of people that would lie to their mothers") in the English Plus example. And I can't see any reason to question the use of that in any of them.

If recent journalism isn't the source of this would-be principle of usage, what about literature? Well, just among titles, we have Mark Twain's The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg, Edgar Allen Poe's The Man that was Used Up, and Edgar Rice Burroughs' The People that Time Forgot.

Here's a piece of advice: if someone proposes a grammatical principle that is violated by the titles of two or more classic novels or stories, you should think twice before paying them money for further advice on grammar and usage.

Turning our attention to poetry, it's equally easy to find examples of that introducing non-"class-or-type" relative clauses:

679      ---All moveables of wonder from all parts,
680      Are here, Albinos, painted Indians, Dwarfs,
681      The Horse of Knowledge, and the learned Pig,
682      The Stone-eater, the Man that swallows fire,
683      Giants, Ventriloquists, the Invisible Girl,
684      The Bust that speaks, and moves its goggling eyes,
685      The Wax-work, Clock-work, all the marvellous craft
686      Of modern Merlins, wild Beasts, Puppet-shows,
687      All out-o'-the-way, far-fetch'd, perverted things,
688      All freaks of Nature, all Promethean thoughts
689      Of Man; his dulness, madness, and their feats,
690      All jumbled up together to make up
691      This Parliament of Monsters.

(Wordsworth, The Prelude, Book Seventh.)


36        The merriment of the twin-babes that crawl over the grass in the sun, the mother never turning her vigilant eyes from them,

(Whitman, Leaves of Grass, Spontaneous Me).


15        Half-drunk or whole mad soldiery
16        Are murdering your tenants there;
17        Men that revere your father yet
18        Are shot at on the open plain;

(Yeats, Reprisals)

The second mistake in the Grammar Slammers' analysis of "Using That, Which, and Who as Relative Pronouns" is a much more subtle one: in this context, that should probably not be called a "relative pronoun" at all.

In the chapter 12 of the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language ("Relative constructions and unbounded dependencies"), the authors argue (pp. 1056-57) that

Traditional grammar analyses the that which introduces relative clauses as a relative pronoun, comparable to which and who, but we believe that there is a good case for identifying it with the subordinator that which introduces declarative content clauses.

They give four arguments, all simple and easy to understand -- for those who can keep track of the basic facts of standard English grammar, and don't feel the need to invent rules out of thin air.


Posted by Mark Liberman at September 12, 2004 01:37 PM