Monday, August 13, 2012

Grammar stuff: Who vs. That

My favorite truck stop, the Planeview Truck Stop, just south of Oshkosh, WI, has a slogan that is grammatically incorrect.

The headline of the stop's web site is "Dirk, the Dutch Dairyman That Bought a Truck Stop." Dirk is to be forgiven. English isn't his first language. And truckers don't care about grammar. At least most don't. I've met Dirk a couple times when he's worked the diner, and while his English skills are rudimentary at best, he makes a mean chicken fried steak, which is great considering that it's not exactly Dutch cuisine.

"That" refers to objects. "Who" refers to people. Dirk is one who bought the truck stop. I've noticed many people who claim English as their first language can't make the proper distinction between "who" and "that." Where word usage gets a little muddy is the use of "whose," which can apply to both people and objects. "The truck's engine, whose oil hadn't been changed in over 40,000 miles, ran a little choppy." "Dirk, whose chicken fried steak is the best in all the land, also makes a tasty omelet."

Somehow, referring to a person as "that" dehumanizes them. I like the following sentence from the Grammar Girl web site, that illustrates this point. "I always think of my friend who would only refer to his new stepmother as the woman that married my father." When the improper use of "that" is intended to dehumanize someone, it can be quite clever.

What about non-humans? Grammar Girl gives her dog "who" status, but relegates her "fish" to that. I guess if you would cry at the death of pet, it's a "who," but if you sigh and reach for a net, it's a "that."

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