Share this article

print logo


Was it properly the cow THAT jumped over the moon, or the cow WHO jumped over the moon? It was certainly not the cow WHICH jumped over the moon. At this point you will have cleverly surmised that today's cosmic topic is the impersonal relative pronoun.

In some quarters you can find a nice knockdown argument over whos and thats and whiches. After a while I will break a lance with editors at Merriam-Webster.

First, the general rule: Use WHO for human beings and exceptional dogs. "The president who succeeds Clinton will find the armed forces . . ." "Lassie was a collie who responded . . ."

Use THAT for inanimate objects: "The book that most influenced Jellicoe was Mahan's 'The Influence of Sea Power Upon History.' "

Use WHICH when you have used so many THATs that the repetition gets irksome. Never under any circumstances string a strand of whiches on a rope of conjunctions: "The novel which first attracted her, and which she read repeatedly, but which finally palled . . ."

Let us consider some examples. In April a foofaraw arose in the U.S. Senate. Knight-Ridder reported: "Bowing to the objection of Sen. Robert C. Byrd, the Senate yesterday refused admission to its chambers for Beau, a yellow crossbreed who serves as the guide dog for a vision-impaired Senate aide."

Beau obviously is an exceptional dog. It was perfectly OK to speak of "Beau, WHO serves," etc. To have identified Beau as "a yellow crossbreed THAT serves" would have robbed the story of its compassionate appeal. But, it's "the horse that attracted bettors . . ." and "the manatee that captured a legion of admirers . . ."

During a visit to Rome last year, a teen-ager from Asheville, N.C., received a papal blessing. It was the thrill of a lifetime. He said, "I believe that anybody that has touched, heard or seen Pope John Paul II would do just anything to see him again." In this construction, "anybody" demanded a "who" -- anybody WHO has touched . . .

Companies are composed of humans, but they are grammatically inanimate: "Companies that fail to learn from Exxon's experience . . ." "House committees that fail to act upon leadership bills . . ."

Webster's Dictionary of English Usage devotes considerable space to relative pronouns and winds up by casting its permissive blessing upon THAT as a referent for humans. After citing two 18th-century examples, and one bad example from Ben Lucien Burman in 1985, the editors say: "THAT is definitely standard when used of persons."

The editors might with equal deference have cited the comic strip B.C. In one strip, a Neanderthal sage advises a customer: "Never give your money to a bank teller THAT'S sitting on a suitcase." This is acceptable usage?

Bosh! Nonsense! Humbuggery! The misuse of THAT in reference to humans may be "definitely standard" in the funnies, but it is not definitely standard in this column. Who are you going to believe? Me or Merriam-Webster?

Skip that question.

Those pesky pronouns, THAT and WHICH, cause trouble in other applications, but this is avoidable trouble. I am speaking of what grammarians identify as defining and non-defining clauses. The labels don't matter.

Here is a handy rule of thumb: If the clause may be set off in commas, use WHICH. Otherwise, use THAT.

Nothing could be simpler: "The red Ford that is in the garage is Aunt Sallie's." (As opposed to Joe's red Ford parked on the street.) "The blue Pontiac, which is in the driveway, is Uncle Albert's." (The location isn't necessarily important because there is no other blue Pontiac nearby.)

While we're on the general subject of pronouns, let me offer another easy test for error. Horrid Example: "Once out of the tabloid spotlight that followed he and ex-wife Julia Roberts around ..." And, "The New Year could not come too soon for my colleagues and I in the newsroom." In Seattle, the United Way told of a troubled Brenda who now sees "a bright future ahead for she and her daughter."

The trick is to trim everything down to the bone. Cut away "and ex-wife Julia Roberts," and we have the tabloid spotlight that followed he around. We have the New Year that could not come too soon for I. We have a bright future ahead for she.

We will not get into WHO and WHOM today. Indeed, unless I take leave of my senses, we will never get into WHO and WHOM at all.

Universal Press Syndicate

There are no comments - be the first to comment