Who is That Woman? by Patricia Smith Wood

Up until a couple of years ago, I never gave a lot of thought to a rather controversial subject. In fact, I didn’t even know there was a controversy. Most of us pick up our speech patterns as small children. It can undergo many changes when we attend school. We meet people who might make different word choices, have different speech patterns, slang, and customs.

Over time, we are “educated” either officially, or through our association with others, in the words of acceptable speech and writing. We learn new words and how to properly use them. We end up with a mishmash.

A problem can develop because language traditions change so often. Over time words come to mean different things. The years from 1890 until 1899 were commonly referred to as “The Gay Nineties” during that period. That was true even long into the twentieth century. Some folks remember the term “The Rebellious Sixties” and would be shocked if “rebellious” came to mean something very different in the future.

But what about other words—words we hear used and see printed all the time. Often there is more than one word choice. Sometimes rules of usage help us decide. But other times, it’s up to our personal decision. It can be a landmine. So what am I talking about?

Two words, “who” and “that,” are currently getting some attention.  In case you hadn’t heard, these two words are embroiled in controversy.

The word “that” is a pronoun, as is “who.” No controversy there. Ah, but think about it. How do you use these two words? There are two different opinions circulating.

I think of the two sides as the Grammarians and Humanists.

Here is the Grammarians’ argument: “That” refers to persons or things, and rarely to subhuman entities. The notion that that should not be used to refer to a person is without foundation; such use is entirely standard.

The Humanists feel otherwise: They say it is demeaning to use “that” when referring to a human being, or even an animal. Creatures with a soul shouldn’t be referred to as “that.” It’s dehumanizing. Since who isn’t used for an object, that shouldn’t be used when referring to living beings.

The problem is, I hadn’t paid a lot of attention to these competing thoughts. I was blissfully ignorant about the controversy. Then my daughter became an editor, and I became aware.

Once you think about it, there’s a good argument for referring to people as “who” rather than “that.” After my daughter explained it to me, I became an acolyte—a rabid one!

When I read the newspaper and see a person referred to as “that” rather than “who,” my hackles go up. Newscasters are the next culprits I’ve noticed. And apparently a large number of people all around me see no problem using “that” in almost all cases.

But here’s the thing. The grammarians are probably going to win this one. I’m not enough of an activist to make this my main crusade, even though I’m focusing on cleaning up my own writing and speaking. I’m using mindfulness to select the “who” designation for people and animals. (I drawn the line at assigning “who” to insects, snakes, and other crawly things!)

However, based on what I’ve seen since I became “enlightened,” I don’t think enough people are ready to jump on board. Most seem more than happy to grab whichever word strikes their fancy at that moment. They don’t recognize slights (real or imagined) by interchanging those words.

There’s one really good reason they might consider. If you’re a writer, overuse of certain words becomes truly annoying to the reader. The word “that” is one of those words.

So, next time you sit down to write (or read) see how many times you could substitute “who” for “that.” It could end up making you a convert.

Now, wouldn’t THAT be something?



3 thoughts on “Who is That Woman? by Patricia Smith Wood

  1. I’ve never thought about this controversy. I probably use THAT more in conversation too.. although it’s more of a “thut” when I say it. – “He’s the one thut said I couldn’t go.”
    Maybe sometimes I say WHO. Maybe I don’t notice when I read THAT or WHO… so, it must not matter that much. I try to be pretty pure in my writing at least, so I will try to be more aware of this conundrum, and use the more proper WHO. Thanks for making me think!


  2. Interesting. I really try to get rid of the word “that” in any case where it isn’t needed. I prefer “who” for people. However, in dialogue I’ll go with how people talk.


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