November 21, 2006

One of those people that care(s)

The second hour of KQED's "Forum" radio program this morning had as its guest Kitty Burns Florey, author of Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences (Melville House, 2006), a charming and decidedly non-technical account of Reed-Kellogg sentence diagramming and those who have loved it.  She kept reminding her listeners that she was neither a linguist nor an English teacher, she carefully made no claims about the pedagogical values of sentence diagramming, and she was realistic about change in language (while struggling to recognize what was "technically" or "traditionally" correct).  But of course most of the phone calls were from people retailing their pet peeves about English grammar and usage, complaints that will be familiar to readers of Language Log.

Early on in the calls came one beginning firmly:

I'm one of those people that cares... that care.

(meaning that the caller cared about prescriptive correctness).  The caller laughed and then went on with her complaints, and nobody remarked on either of the usage points in her first sentence.

[Correction: now that I can access the recording of the show, I see that I got my transcription backwards: "Susan from Berkeley" says: "I was going to say that uh I'm one of those people that care [laugh]... that cares."  This is a bit more delicious than what I thought I heard the first time, as we'll see below.  (Thanks to Jonathan Lundell.)]

It's been five whole months since we wrote about the choice of singular or plural verb in a restrictive relative clause following one of + plural NP: singular to go with one, or plural to go with the plural NP?  (The plural variant is considerably older, but the singular has been around at least since Shakespeare and people have been complaining about it since around 1770, after it began appearing with some frequency in the works of respected writers; MWDEU suggests that there's a subtle difference in meaning or discourse function between the alternatives, so that both should be accepted as standard.)  The caller went for the singular first and then altered it to the plural, possibly recognizing the "correction" with her laugh.  Maybe she cares too much.  [Addendum: now we see that she started with the prescriptive standard (plural) and revised it to the sometimes-proscribed version (singular).]

People who maintain that they CARE about grammar very often care about that as a restrictive relativizer with human-denoting heads, maintaining that only who is acceptable in formal writing (or even acceptable, period).  MWDEU tells the convoluted story of relativizer that with reference to human beings: it came first, then fell out of favor, but was revived in the 18th century, though with a bad taste left over from its years in exile among the common people; John Simon and William Safire have deplored it.

In searching the Language Log archives for the link to my earlier posting "One of those who", I pulled up the postings in which this expression and some of its variants were used (rather than mentioned) by the bloggers.  Our usage on the singular/plural issue is divided: two to two for "one of those who" (singular in Mark Liberman's postings #2459 and #2466, plural in Geoff Pullum's #937 and Mark's #1347), an edge for the singular for "one of those people who" (Mark's #1209, #2381, and #3044, versus plural in Geoff Pullum's #1461 and someone I quoted in #3555).  In any case, we are not unhappy with the singular.

On the that/who issue, we seem not to have used that at all for reference to human beings in the contexts "one of those people..." or "one of those..."  So we're inclined to be who users.  But we wouldn't deride the "Forum" caller for her choice of that.  That's ok with us.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at November 21, 2006 09:27 AM