The question of “who” versus “that” as the relative pronoun for a person

Kevin K. writes:

I, too, thank you for your grammarian nitpickiness. Is it also a sign of decay when “that” is used instead of “who” in a sentence ascribing a characteristic or action to an individual or individuals? An example: “The conservative man that voted for Obama was no Conservative.” The use of ” that” in place of “who” seems to me to dehumanize the person being mentioned. Has the New York Times been complicit here as well? Thank you much for your thoughts and writings.

LA replies:

I wrote an entry at VFR some months ago, making the same point you are making about “who” and “that,” and I agree with you regarding the example you give. But I’ve also realized that the issue is more complicated than I thought. There are good writers who use “that” in place of “who” in certain circumstances, the poet W.B. Yeats in particular, and the places where Yeats does this, I think his word choice is the right one.

For example, Yeats’s poem, “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory,” begins:

Now that we’re almost settled in our house
I’ll name the friends that cannot sup with us
Beside a fire of turf in the ancient tower…

I can’t explain exactly why, but I think Yeats made the right choice: “friends that cannot sup with us” is better than “friends who cannot sup with us.”

Then in the second stanza:

But not a friend that I would bring
This night can set us quarrelling,
For all that come into my mind are dead.

Would this have been better if Yeats had written,

But not a friend whom I would bring
This night can set us quarreling,
For all who come into my mind are dead.

Clearly the “whom” would be too formal for the conversational tone of the poem, so we can leave that aside. But would you insist on “who” in the last line?

Perhaps the distinction is that “who” works better with the singular and “that” with the plural. But no. Yeats uses “that” as a singular relative pronoun as well. From the same poem:

Lionel Johnson comes the first to mind,
That loved his learning better than mankind,

Would “Who loved his learning” have been better? I think again, that Yeats made the right choice, though I can’t explain why.

Finally, also from the same poem, where Yeats is speaking of Robert Gregory, “his dear friend’s dear son” who has died in the war:

What other could so well have counselled us
In all lovely intricacies of a house
As he that practised or that understood
All work in metal or in wood,
In moulded plaster or in carven stone?

I also think Yeats made the right choice here. “he that practiced” works better than “he who practiced,” but I can’t explain why.

But perhaps I’m leading us astray here, because the feel of poetry is not the same as for prose, leading to word choices in a poem that may not be right for prose. I don’t have an answer. I’d have to consider many more examples first.

- end of initial entry -

Thomas Bertonneau writes:

What you propose is true generally and even truer in the case of that particular poem, where Yeats uses the written language to imitate the effects (including casualness and improvisation) of the spoken language.

James W. writes:

I agree with your attention to the subject and object pronouns, who and whom, and I also agree with you that Yeats’s poem in memory of Robert Gregory provides a potent exception. Or rather, it provides an apparent exception. Is not Yeats referring exclusively to the dead? To the ghosts who haunt his memory with a supernatural power? While a ghost is still a “who,” Yeats may have found “that” to sound more chillingly objective, as if those who had been known intimately were now powers, forces, or, above all, symbols. Certain that is the effect the pronoun “that” has on my reading of the poem, and Yeats and T.S. Eliot were both real masters in their use of pronouns; by this I mean that they both used pronouns effectively to walk a line between abstraction and concretion

LA replies:

That’s an interesting point about references to the dead. However, in this stanza from his poem, “A Prayer for my Daughter,” Yeats three times uses “that” to refer to living persons:

In courtesy I’d have her chiefly learned;
Hearts are not had as a gift but hearts are earned
By those that are not entirely beautiful;
Yet many, that have played the fool
For beauty’s very self, has charm made wise,
And many a poor man that has roved,
Loved and thought himself beloved,
From a glad kindness cannot take his eyes.

And he’s not just using “that” for impersonal, unnamed, plural people. In the preceding stanza, he refers to the goddess Aphrodite as “that”:

While that great Queen, that rose out of the spray,
Being fatherless could have her way
Yet chose a bandy-leggèd smith for man.

Anita K. writes:

I believe I wrote to you earlier about the use of “that”—which is perfectly fine. The insistence on “who” by some people is fairly recent, I think.

But for fun: just now I typed “he that” into google. Try it and see what you get. It came up with a lot of good examples.

Good literature—the King James, various authors——is full of phrases using “that.” It’s often a question of style. We might say: “He who hesitates is lost,” but in many instances “that” is perfectly correct, and better.

Virgil C. writes:

Regarding Yeats’s usage, can it not simply be that the word “that” trips more lightly from the tongue than the more dallying “who”? “Who” is metrically more expensive than “that,” especially following “all” in a phrase such as “For all that come into my mind” or preceding “understood” in “he that practised or that understood … ” From a grammatical aspect, the formulation “As he who practised or who understood all work in metal or in wood” would be unobjectionable; it would be clumsy as poetry.

The protracted “o-“sound in “who” invites the speaker to linger over the word. In this sense, “that” is an unstressed monosyllabic function word, whereas “who” would be a monosyllabic content word requiring more effort to properly enunciate, which would draw unwanted attention to it. There’s a similar agency at work in Henry V’s St. Crispin’s Day speech: “What’s he that wishes so?”; “He that outlives this day,” “he which hath no stomach to this fight,” “For he today that sheds his blood with me … “

The poet sometimes chooses his words as much for weight and rhythm, or the echoes they provoke a few words down the line, as for meaning or strict grammatical correctness. Quod licet Iovi, non licet bovi: Yeats has sure grammatical hands; the American journaille does not.

Tom H. writes:

You are correct about the the use of “that” and “who” in the situations you describe. Poetry and prose, however, cannot be compared; they have different requirements. “That” in “friends that cannot,” “all that come,” and “he that practised” supplies a euphony that would be lacking with “who”; the alliteration and assonance provide trenchancy, which all writers strive for. You felt this too—hence your feeling that “that” was correct in the Yeats verses.

By the way, I have read and enjoyed your blog for many years now. On no other do I find the kind of clarity and unapologetic, intellectual support for traditional conservatism that I find on VFR. (And, finally, I found something to add to the dialogue!) Thanks for all your hard work..

Kristor writes:

I wonder if the distinction is a holdover from the days when English speakers still differentiated between formal and informal forms of address. Specifically, I wonder whether “that” was the relative pronoun for the informal form, while “who” was for the formal form. Compare the informal “thou that dwellest between the Cherubim” with “thou who dwellest.” The latter doesn’t feel right at all. But if we put the whole expression into the formal form, we get “you who dwell,” which seems to fit together appropriately, if less euphoniously.

Before the improvers got to the Book of Common Prayer, the Lord’s Prayer began, “Our Father, that art in Heaven, Hallowed be thy Name.” Likewise, the Benedictus Es went, “Blessed is He that cometh in the Name of the Lord,” and the Agnus Dei went, “O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world …”

The question then becomes, when was it customary to use the informal form, and when the formal? Clearly one used the informal when referring to someone familiar, like God. Perhaps then the custom was to use the formal only when addressing a person not understood as familiar to oneself. This would mean that statements about a plurality of people would tend to be expressed using the informal form: they that go down to the sea in ships, all that come into my mind are dead, and so forth. On the other hand, when directly addressing a plurality of people, who might not all be familiar, one would use the formal: “Ye who do truly and earnestly repent …”

Thus when Yeats is talking about his dear friend’s dear son, he is talking about a person with whom he is familiar, and so uses the informal “that.” I, on the other hand, in writing that last sentence, was in referring to Yeats’ friend’s son denoting a person with whom I am not familiar; so I used “whom.”

I don’t know how I would go about looking this up.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage has a comprehensive and inconclusive entry on the question.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at July 30, 2011 07:59 AM | Send

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