“Who,” Not “That”

Over at The New York Times, Frank Bruni asks, What Happened to Who?:

I first noticed it during the 2016 Republican presidential debates, which were crazy-making for so many reasons that I’m not sure how I zeroed in on this one. “Who” was being exiled from its rightful habitat. It was a linguistic bonobo: endangered, possibly en route to extinction.

Instead of saying “people who,” Donald Trump said “people that.” Marco Rubio followed suit. Even Jeb Bush, putatively the brainy one, was “that”-ing when he should have been “who”-ing, so I was cringing when I should have been oohing.

It’s always a dangerous thing when politicians get near the English language: Run for the exits and cover the children’s ears. But this bit of wreckage particularly bothered me. This was who, a pronoun that acknowledges our humanity, our personhood, separating us from the flotsam and jetsam out there. We’re supposed to refer to “the trash that” we took out or “the table that” we discovered at a flea market. We’re not supposed to refer to “people that call my office” (Rubio) or “people that come with a legal visa and overstay” (Bush).

Bruni acknowledges the historical precedent of “that” in place of “who”, but I agree with him: using “who” when referring to a person is just more accurate.

There are many inconsistencies languages adopt through common usage, but that doesn’t make them ok, and it doesn’t mean should use them as the basis for how we write and speak.

I guess my question is: Once you explicitly see the options, “people who” and “people that,” what possible justification would you have to use “that“?

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Irony vs Coincidence

It seems I’m encountering people every other day who use ‘irony’ when they mean ‘coincidence.’

One of the best explanations of the distinction between these two words I ever read is by George Carlin in his 1998 book, Brain Droppings:

Irony deals with opposites; it has nothing to do with coincidence. If two baseball players from the same hometown, on different teams, receive the same uniform number, it is not ironic. It is a coincidence. If Barry Bonds attains lifetime statistics identical to his father’s it will not be ironic. It will be a coincidence. Irony is “a state of affairs that is the reverse of what was to be expected; a result opposite to and in mockery of the appropriate result.” For instance:

If a diabetic, on his way to buy insulin, is killed by a runaway truck, he is the victim of an accident. If the truck was delivering sugar, he is the victim of an oddly poetic coincidence. But if the truck was delivering insulin, ah! Then he is the victim of an irony. If a Kurd, after surviving bloody battle with Saddam Hussein’s army and a long, difficult escape through the mountains, is crushed and killed by a parachute drop of humanitarian aid, that, my friend, is irony writ large.

Darryl Stingley, the pro football player, was paralyzed after a brutal hit by Jack Tatum. Now Darryl Stingley’s son plays football, and if the son should become paralyzed while playing, it will not be ironic. It will be coincidental. If Darryl Stingley’s son paralyzes someone else, that will be closer to ironic. If he paralyzes Jack Tatum’s son that will be precisely ironic.

Are we all clear now? Cool.

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Words

Dirty Boulevard

Give me your hungry, your tired your poor I’ll piss on ’em
That’s what the Statue of Bigotry says
Your poor huddled masses, let’s club ’em to death
And get it over with and just dump ’em on the boulevard

Dirty Boulevard by Lou Reed

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