March 14, 2018

The Last Word

Many judges and clients who are particular about grammar care about—and may judge a writer on—the writer’s use of the common relative pronouns: which, that, who, and whom. In fact, a few months ago, Frank Bruni devoted an entire opinion piece in the New York Times to condemning the modern trend of using that rather than who when referring to human beings—he views that as dehumanizing. Frank Bruni, What Happened to Who?, N.Y. Times, April 8, 2017. Of course, most lawyers are not concerned about philosophical considerations—they just want to use the grammatically correct word. Unfortunately, while the rules governing that and which are fairly clear, no invariable rules tell us when who should be used instead of that. And most find the distinction between who and whom a complete mystery. Let’s look at both the old rules and the somewhat different reality of accepted modern usage.

Which, That, Who

Strunk and White state, “That is the defining, or restrictive, pronoun, which the nondefining and nonrestrictive.” William Strunk, Jr. & E.B. White, The Elements of Style 54 (4th ed. 2000). In other words, both that and which describe the nouns they follow, but writers should use that to preface a clause that is essential to the meaning of the noun and which to start a clause that simply provides additional information about the noun. Compare, “Dark chocolate that Decadent Desserts sells is too bitter,” with “Dark chocolate, which Decadent Desserts sells, is too bitter.” The first sentence criticizes only the dark chocolate sold by Decadent Desserts, whereas the second sentence criticizes all dark chocolate. A which clause should also be enclosed by commas, making it clear to the reader that the clause merely provides additional information, that it does not limit the meaning of the noun. In fact, a writer can often decide whether that or which is the correct word by reading the sentence aloud to determine whether there is a pause—there is usually a pause before a clause that simply provides additional information (no pause here, so that is correct). This distinction is fairly clear and easy to apply.

But it’s not similarly easy for a writer to decide when to use who instead of that or which. Prof. Garner instructs that who should be used to describe people and groups of people, but that is also permissible, even with humans. See, e.g., Bryan A. Garner, A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage 934 (2d ed. 1995). But my grammar school nuns taught me that a writer should use who only to mean particular, specified people, and that should be used to describe humans in general. Fowler generally endorses this preference for that when describing a type of person or a generic person. H.W. Fowler, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage 389 (David Crystal ed. 2009). But Prof. Garner and Mr. Bruni in his opinion piece set out the current rule: who is the better choice for describing humans, even generic humans. In deference to the humanity of judges and clients, I changed the first sentence of this column to “judges and clients who are particular about grammar,” though “judges and clients that are particular about grammar” still sounds better to my nun-trained ear.

One point on which the authorities agree is the rule that who is nonrestrictive as well as restrictive—it can be used in place of both that and which. In addition, nonrestrictive information about a group of people is always introduced by who, never by which: “Chocolate lovers, who will go anywhere to find good chocolate, love the dark chocolate at Decadent Desserts.”

What About Whom?

The rule, as stated by Prof. Garner, is: “who acts as the subject of a verb, whereas whom acts as the object of a verb or preposition.” But many speakers and writers do not want to puzzle over this distinction when picking the pronoun they will use to refer to a person—Mary Norris, the former comma queen of The New Yorker, has reportedly speculated that people sometimes use that and avoid who because they fear mistaking it for whom. Bruni, supra. That fear is understandable.

Whom seems natural when it follows a preposition; for example, “Judges to whom grammar is important.” In other contexts, the writer has to take the sentence apart to decide whether the pronoun is being used as the subject or the object of the sentence or clause—and use whom if the pronoun is the object (and then only if the verb is not a linking verb like is or was). Even when whom is used correctly, the result sometimes sounds silly; for example, “Whom do you believe?” Prof. Steven Pinker advises writers to use their judgment in using whom—whom should be used if the piece is formal and then only if whom does not seem awkward. Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style 243 (2014). In a simple sentence, even William Safire was comfortable writing, “Let tomorrow’s people decide who they want to be president.” Id. (quoting Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage 959 (1994)).

Is all of this confusing? Yes, it is. No wonder that, rather than which and who, is so popular, and so accepted by most grammar mavens. And as to whom—unless it follows a preposition, it’s probably better to re-phrase. Garner, supra, at 933 (quoting William Safire).