Simanaitis Says

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FRANK BRUNI is a writer I enjoy. And, in this opening sentence, I’ve purposely left out any “who,” “that” or whatever after the word “writer.” I’m confident this omission confuses no one.

And, indeed, I’m amplifying here on Bruni’s “What Happened to Who?” in The New York Times, April 9, 2017. He laments the loss of “a perfectly lovely pronoun—and a bit of our dignity” in modern English usage’s replacement of “who” with “that.”

Image by Ben Wiseman from The New York Times, April 9, 2017.

Examples Bruni cites are rife; my favorite: “There is nobody that respects women more than Donald Trump,” our Dealmaker-in-Chief said to Fox’s Bill O’Reilly.

I pause here to reflect on Dante’s Eighth Circle of hell where space is reserved for hypocrites. Golly. Imagine its size.

Bruni takes it philosophically: “The deployment of ‘that’ in lieu of ‘who’ doesn’t actually rate very high on the messiness meter. It’s defensible, because while some usage and style guides—including The New York Times’—call for ‘who’ and ‘whom’ when people are involved, others say it’s elective.”

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary is okay with “that” in relation to people. The American Heritage Dictionary even cites examples from Shakespeare and in the King James Bible.

And then there’s the quandary of whether it’s “who” or “whom,” as in “Who is calling, please?” or “To whom do you wish to speak?”

Of course, “who” is the subject; “whom” is the object.

A similar quandary has long existed with “that” versus “which” in a related clause: “The car ____ was painted blue finished first.”

Grammatically, it’s non-trivial, but straightforward. If the related clause is restrictive, one singling out the subject, then “that” works best, typically with no comma. In a one-marque race with color id: “The car that was painted blue finished first.”

On the other hand, if the related clause is nonrestrictive, merely adding incidental information, then “which” helps to clarify this, the clause set off with commas: “The car, which was painted blue, finished first.”

Restrictive clause? Nonrestrictive clause? Subject? Object?

Oh, sorry; I forgot society’s apparent reluctance to teach grammar any more. Where’s Common Core English when we need it?

For example, the that/which choice seems to have degenerated into a matter of everyday versus hoity-toity, sort of like “It is me” versus “It is I.” And, to impress people all the more, use ’em both, “that which.”

Here’s a classic word puzzle. Insert punctuation so this makes sense: “That which is is that which is not is not is not that so”

Like I say, y’know: “That’s that?” “It is me that you heared.” ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2017


  1. jlalbrecht64
    April 11, 2017

    Back in the day my engineering study buddy and dorm/apartment mate and I got a kick out of removing the punctuation and quotes and declaring, “Man does things for why not why not.”

  2. Bob DuBois
    April 11, 2017

    Okay, I’ll give it a try. But I must warn you, I was a chemistry major in college. That which is, is that which is,not “is not”. Is not that so? Am I close?

    • simanaitissays
      April 12, 2017

      An interesting variation, though not the one I have in mind.

  3. Bob DuBois
    April 12, 2017

    Does that mean, then, that there is no “right” answer?

  4. Bob DuBois
    April 12, 2017

    Okay, here’s another variation. That which is, is. That which is not, is not. Is not that so?

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