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?



Lie, Lady, Lie: A Grammatical Short Story

In which a liar lying on a beach lays to rest all possible confusion about the words for reclining, telling falsehoods, and setting things down.

Lie, Lady, Lie

I should be at home laying tile in the kitchen, but I instead I’m lying on the beach. I called my husband—ex-husband-to-be—and lied, telling him Grandpa’s home health aide had called in sick and that I’d have to stay with Grandpa all day. The kitchen can wait. We’re only fixing it up so we can sell the house for a higher price after we move out and go our separate ways. I lie on my back and close my eyes, lay my phone on the blanket, and then remember to turn it off. When I’ve lain here long enough, I’ll get up and wade in the waves. But not yet. When was the last time I was free to just lie around and be lazy? I swear, I married a slave-driver. I’m not going to miss him. Once, I lay in bed until nine o’clock and Dan listed all the things I could have accomplished if I’d gotten up at seven. On a Saturday. Today, I’m making up for lost time

I wake with a start, wondering how long I lay asleep in the sun. I reach for my phone to check the time, but it’s not where I laid it. My hand grabs a man’s ankle instead. I look up to see Dan’s attractive young assistant, Sebastian, holding my phone and smiling down at me.

“Bad lie.” His voice is low and teasing. “Your grandfather’s house is on Dan’s way to the office. Your car wasn’t there. And he said he heard gulls in the background when you called.”

Darn. The best-laid plans of weary wives … “And he sent you to make me go home and lay tile? You’ve got to be kidding.”

“He sent me to go look at a property we’re leasing for the business.” Sebastian takes off his shirt and lays it on the sand, then lies beside me, propped up on his elbow, grinning. “Of course, when he mentioned your call, he complained about what a lazy wife he has. He doesn’t appreciate you, Celia. So, I lied, too. And here we are.”

His half-bare body is as beautiful as I’ve often imagined it would be. The longing that has lain dormant in both of us for years awakens, and we embrace. On someone’s radio in the distance, Bob Dylan’s classic love song, “Lay, Lady, Lay” is playing. Sebastian laughs. I ask him what’s so funny, and he says, “It’s such a sexy song, but I always wonder what he wants her to lay across his big brass bed? A silk duvet? Granny’s crocheted afghan?”

“Her body, silly.” I kiss his neck and nibble his earlobe. “He wants her to lay her body down.”

“Then he should be asking her to lie—”

“I already did. ” My fingers caress his lips.  “We both did.”


For more fun with lie and lay, check your mastery of these words with a couple of quizzes.



I’ve never written anything in first person present tense before, so this experiment was fun for that reason as well as my attempt to incorporate every possible variation on lie and lay in a story as short as NPR’s three-minute fiction. (I’m sorry it’s not a mystery, but with the characters both lying and lying, the thematic words lent themselves more to a tryst.) I was inspired by Jane Gorman’s entertaining homophone post and by my encounters with lie/lay confusion in print and in speech.

Occasionally, I take yoga classes taught by a young woman who understands the human body and teaches well, but she uses the transitive verb lay for the intransitive verb lie. When she wants her students to assume a supine or prone position, she says, “Lay on your back,” or “Lay on your stomach.”

In some parts of the country, this is a regional speech idiom, and of course it occurs in popular music. Perhaps that’s why it’s confusing for writers. I’ve found lay/lie errors in published books, overlooked by editors and proofreaders. Even the grammar-check function in Word is confused, and occasionally tries to supply the incorrect word. It found fault with one of the two quotations from the ungrammatical yoga teacher and not with the other.

I can’t bring myself to make any of my characters talk the way she does, even though it would be more realistic if a few of them did.  What about you?

Comments welcome! Lay it on!

Photo credit: The lead image was originally posted to Flickr by J.C. Rojas at http://www.flickr.com/photos/jcrojas/194663540