Tag Archives: peeves

Don’t sweat it: “Who” and “That”

One peeve I’ve seen pop up a couple of times recently is the prohibition on using That and who“that” when referring to people, as in “The scientists that worked on the project toiled in anonymity” instead of “The scientists who worked on the project toiled in anonymity.” Some people think — and are quick to point out — that “who” is the only proper pronoun for human antecedents; centuries of written English say otherwise, as do most reputable usage guides.

In this kind of construction, “who” and “that” are relative pronouns introducing an essential, or restrictive, clause. Essential clauses are just that — essential to the meaning of the sentence. In other words, if you take them out, the meaning of the sentence changes.

“That” can refer to any sort of antecedent, whether it’s a person or a thing. It did for Chaucer, it did for Shakespeare, it did even in the King James Bible (the first instance is in Genesis: “And the sons of Noah, that went forth of the ark, were Shem, and Ham, and Japheth: and Ham is the father of Canaan.”). “Who” has arisen as a more specific form for people — and pets and zoo animals — and its use is apparently broadening, as it is occasionally seen referring to businesses.

Is there a preference for “who” when the antecedent is human? Absolutely. It’s even part of some style guides. But is “that” grammatically wrong? Absolutely not.

Like physicians, editors should do no harm

Sometimes, you need to leave the cap on the red pen.
Sometimes, you need to leave the cap on the red pen.

When students first learn to edit, they’re looking for mistakes everywhere. And they find a lot. But one of the things I try to teach from the first day is that not everything has something wrong with it, so they need to know when to leave copy the heck alone. A principle that guides physicians should guide editors as well: First, do no harm. (Interestingly, this exact phrase does not appear in the Hippocratic Oath.)

In other words, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. (Or, as an overzealous editor might say, if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.) This is one of the cardinal rules of editing: Have a good reason for any change you make.

Don’t edit to your peeves. Don’t change something simply because “it sounds bad.” Don’t alter perfectly fine writing because that’s not the way you would have written it.

Do fix the mistakes. Do fill in missing information. Do smooth out rough patches. Do trim words that add nothing. Do explain the complicated. That’s plenty of work to keep an editor busy without messing around in things that don’t need messing.

What editors hate more than letting a big mistake slip through is inserting a mistake themselves. One way that can happen is by mucking about unnecessarily in copy — that’s a typo, a dropped word or a repeated sentence waiting to happen.

It’s often said that good editing is invisible. (Great editing can chop 200 words and no content whatsoever from a piece, but let’s save that for another day.) That’s as it should be. The whole point of editing is for the reader to smoothly understand everything without being distracted by anything. And sometimes good editing means doing nothing at all.