Who That?

A couple of weeks ago, referring to Ben Carson’s (supposedly) terrible temper, Donald Trump said, “I don’t want a person that’s got a pathological disease.”

What caught my eye was that he didn’t say, “… a person who’s got a pathological disease.” For some years, I have been noticing that my students favor the choice of that over who as a relative pronoun; I did some grumbling about it here, lumping it with other popular usages (“one-year anniversary” instead of “first anniversary,” sticking a comma after a sentence-starting “But” or “And”) that I collectively referred to as “clunk.”

I hasten to say that that that is perfectly correct, grammatically. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage sums up the matter: “In current usage, that refers to persons or things, which refers chiefly to things and rarely to subhuman entities, who chiefly to persons and sometimes to animals.”

Nor is human that any kind of newfangled thing. Shakespeare writes in Hamlet,  “By heaven, I’ll make a ghost of him that lets me.”  Horace Walpole observed, “This world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel.”  The Man That Corrupted Hadleysburg is a Mark Twain title. Ira Gershwin wrote “The Man That Got Away” and Irving Berlin “The Girl That I Marry,” possibly to avoid having the word whom in the title of a song. (On the other hand, the lovely Oscar Hammerstein-Jerome Kern tune is “The Folks Who Live on the Hill.”) Way back when, which was sometimes slotted in as well, as in the 1662 edition of The Book of Common Prayer: “Our Father, which art in heaven.”

Like so many other shibboleths, the idea that that is incorrect in reference to humans originated in the 18th century. The impact on usage was swift, as seen in the Google Ngram Viewer chart below. The blue line represents the relative frequency of the phrase “a person that,” the red line of “a person who”:

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Ngram Viewer charts usage in books, but the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA), which contains 450 million words written or uttered between 1990 and 2012, attests that human that is most common in speech. The chart below shows the  frequency of “a person that” in the different generic databases in COCA; “Spoken” mainly comes from broadcast transcripts.

Screen Shot 2015-11-15 at 9.41.03 AM

But even in print, Ngram Viewer attests that my observation of my students’ affection for that is part of a broader trend: since 1965, the frequency of “a person that” has increased roughly 150 percent.

Screen Shot 2015-11-15 at 9.51.06 AM

What’s the reason for the trend? Some discussions propose that it reflects a societal move toward depersonalization. Others have suggested that that now tends to be used when the subject is vague (“Anyone that wants to retire comfortably should start saving early”) and who when it is specific (“I’m a person who … “). But in my reading and listening, I don’t perceive such a distinction. Mignon Fogarty, aka Grammar Girl, points to a nifty passive-aggressive use: “I always think of my friend who would only refer to his new stepmother as the woman that married my father. He was clearly trying to indicate his animosity.” Maybe Trump was attempting such a ploy.

But I’m going to stick with my earlier hypothesis that a fondness for that is part of a generational sense that streamlined, glossy language moves— even so seemingly small a thing as the use of the word who — are somehow cheesy, and that it’s better to embrace the awkwardness. And why does the younger generation feel that way? Sorry. I’m not the sort of blogger that would hazard a guess on that.

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