People are “who,” not “that,” my friend

“This is great news for anyone that breathes” — Lon Anderson, AAA spokesman

“Somebody That I Used to Know” — hit song by Gotye

“There are so many people in our country that are hurting right now” — Mitt Romney, presidential candidate

“A Woman That Fears the Lord” — name of a blog on Xanga

Suddenly, this year, I’ve been bombarded by “that.” Why did people suddenly forget “who”? What changed? Just in the past several months, I feel the need to fly around town like an owl, swooping in as people talk and hooting, “Who! Who! Who!”

(Or “whom,” as the case may be. But that’s a topic for another day.)

Apparently this isn’t a new phenomenon. As just one example, consider The People That Time Forgot — a 1977 film based on The People That Time Forgot, a 1918 novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs, who ought to have known better. (It’s a sequel to The Land That Time Forgot, so maybe there’s some forgiveness allowable. Does “People” refer to individuals or to a people collectively? Having read a summary but not the book itself, I can’t quite tell and will have to reserve judgment.)

But it can’t be a Fig Newton of my imagination, either, that “people that” is everywhere lately. Maybe folks hear it and pick it up. The distinction is pretty clear; I make the correction regularly on students’ papers:

People and named animals = who  (“Bill is one editor who’s rarely wrong”)

Things and unnamed animals = that  (“grammar mistakes that drive me nuts”)

But, ugh. Come on, folks. No “people that,” no “man that,” no “woman that,” et cetera. People, that just won’t do. Because man, that sounds awful!

Copyright 2012 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

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