Who, That, and the Nature of Bad Rules

A couple of weeks ago the venerable John E. McIntyre blogged about a familiar prescriptive bugbear, the question of that versus who(m). It all started on the blog of the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar, where a Professor Jacoby, a college English professor, wrote in to share his justification for the rule, which is that you should avoid using that which human referents because it depersonalizes them. He calls this justification “quite profound,” which is probably a good sign that it’s not. Mr. McIntyre, ever the reasonable fellow, tried to inject some facts into the conversation, but apparently to no avail.

What I find most interesting about the whole discussion, however, is not the argument over whether that can be used with human referents, but what the whole argument says about prescriptivism and the way we talk about language and rules. (Indeed, the subject has already been covered very well by Gabe Doyle at Motivated Grammar, who made some interesting discoveries about relative pronoun usage that may indicate some cognitive motivation.) Typically, the person putting forth the rule assumes a priori that the rule is valid, and thereafter it seems that no amount of evidence or argument can change their mind. The entire discussion at the SPOGG blog proceeds without any real attempts to address Mr. McIntyre’s points, and it ends with the SPOGG correspondent who originally kicked off the discussion sullenly taking his football and going home.

James Milroy, an emeritus professor of sociolinguistics at the University of Michigan, once wrote that all rationalizations for prescriptions are post hoc; that is, the rules are taken to be true, and the justifications come afterward and really only serve to give the rule the illusion of validity:

Indeed all prescriptive arguments about correctness that depend on intra-linguistic factors are post-hoc rationalizations. . . . But an intra-linguistic rationalization is not the reason why some usages are believed to be wrong. The reason is that it is simply common sense: everybody knows it, it is part of the culture to know it, and you are an outsider if you think otherwise: you are not a participant in the common culture, and so your views can be dismissed. To this extent, linguists who state that I seen it is not ungrammatical are placing themselves outside the common culture.1James Milroy, “Language Ideologies and the Consequences of Standardization,” Journal of Sociolinguistics 5, no. 4 (November 2001), 536.

This may sound like a rather harsh description of prescriptivism, but I think there’s a lot of truth to it—especially the part about linguists unwittingly setting themselves outside of the culture. Linguists try to play the part of the boy who pointed out that the emperor has no clothes, but instead of breaking the illusion they are at best treated as suspect for not playing along. But the point linguists are trying to make isn’t that there’s no such thing as right or wrong in language (though there are some on the fringe who would make such claims)—they’re simply trying to point out that, quite frequently, the justifications are phony and attention to facts and evidence is mostly nonexistent. There are no real axioms or first principles from which prescriptive rules follow—at least, there don’t seem to be any that are consistently applied and followed to their logical conclusions. Instead the canon of prescriptions is a hodgepodge of style and usage opinions that have been passed down and are generally assumed to have the force of law. There are all kinds of unexamined assumptions packaged into prescriptions and their justifications, such as the following from Professor Jacoby:

  • Our society has a tendency to depersonalize people.
  • Depersonalizing people is bad.
  • Using that as a relative pronoun with human referents depersonalizes them.

There are probably more, but that covers the bases. Note that even if we agree that our society depersonalizes people and that this is a bad thing, it’s still quite a leap from this to the claim that that depersonalizes people. But, as Milroy argued, it’s not really about the justification. It’s about having a justification. You can go on until you’re blue in the face about the history of English relative pronoun usage (for instance, that demonstrative pronouns like that were the only option in Old English, and that this has changed several times over the last millennium and a half, and that it’s only recently that people have begun to claim that that with people is wrong) or about usage in other, related languages (such as German, which uses demonstrative pronouns as relative pronouns), but it won’t make any difference; at best, the person arguing for the rule will superficially soften their stance and make some bad analogies to fashion or ethics, saying that while it might not be a rule, it’s still a good guideline, especially for novices. After all, novices need rules that are more black and white—they need to use training wheels for a while before they can ride unaided. Too bad we also never stop to ask whether we’re actually providing novices with training wheels or just putting sticks in their spokes.

Meanwhile, prescriptivists frequently dismiss all evidence for one reason or another: It’s well established in the history of usage? Well, that just shows that people have always made mistakes. It’s even used by greats like Chaucer, Shakespeare, and other literary giants? Hey, even the greats make mistakes. Either that or they mastered the rules and thus know when it’s okay to break them. People today overwhelmingly break the rule? Well, that just shows how dire the situation is. You literally can’t win, because, as Geoffrey Pullum puts it, “nothing is relevant.”

So if most prescriptions are based on unexamined assumptions and post hoc rationalizations, where does that leave things? Do we throw it all out because it’s a charade? That seems rather extreme. There will always be rules, because that’s simply the nature of people. The question is, how do we establish which rules are valid, and how do we teach this to students and practice it as writers and editors? Honestly, I don’t know, but I know that it involves real research and a willingness to critically evaluate not only the rules but also the assumptions that underlie them. We have to stop having a knee-jerk reaction against linguistic methods and allow them to inform our understanding. And linguists need to learn that rules are not inherently bad. Indeed, as John Algeo put it, “The problem is not that some of us have prescribed (we have all done so and continue to do so in one way or another); the trouble is that some of us have prescribed such nonsense.”2“Linguistic Marys, Linguistic Marthas: The Scope of Language Study,” College English 31, no. 3 (December 1969): 276.

Notes   [ + ]

1. James Milroy, “Language Ideologies and the Consequences of Standardization,” Journal of Sociolinguistics 5, no. 4 (November 2001), 536.
2. “Linguistic Marys, Linguistic Marthas: The Scope of Language Study,” College English 31, no. 3 (December 1969): 276.