October 16, 2008

Weekly Language Usage Tips: that or who, bad or badly

Posted in bad or badly, who or that at 8:32 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: that or who

We’ve talked about ‘that’ or ‘which’ (February 14, 2008), but there is another issue involving ‘that’ which warrants addressing. (Ick! I apologize for the ‘that which’ in that sentence-definitely unintentional.) Today, I want to touch upon the ‘that’ or ‘who’ issue. Recently, I encountered the following phrase in a proposal:

including consultants that will provide expertise in content areas

And it grated a little. It would make me feel a lot better if the phrase read:

including consultants who will provide expertise in content areas

My reasoning is that I believe that most consultants actually ARE people. Now, before you start writing all of those accusatory emails [ASIDE: I’m finding myself, surprisingly, feeling bad for Christopher Buckley these days], while it is technically acceptable to use ‘that’ to refer to people or things, it grates a little. And since part of our mission is to communicate, and since we want our readers (think reviewers) to like us, we don’t want anything to grate on them. My edict, therefore, (oh, if only I had the authority to actually make an edict) is to use ‘who’ when referring to people and ‘that’ when referring to things.

The candidate who won last night’s debate will be, I hope, the next president.

The issues that the candidates addressed were timely but somewhat depressing.

The election is much on my mind these days.

Tip 2: bad or badly

Looking back to that last tip, I said something to the effect of “I feel bad for Christopher Buckley.” I know that some would have said, instead, “I feel badly for Christopher Buckley.” Well, those people would have been wrong. Here’s why.

‘Bad’ is an adjective and ‘badly’ is an adverb. You use an adjective to describe a condition. You use an adverb to describe an action.

If you are talking about the action of feeling (i.e., using tactile ability or sense of touch), you need to use an adverb. Thus, I feel badly would mean ‘I am having problems with my sense of touch.’ If you are talking about the condition of feeling (i.e., consciousness or emotion), you would use an adjective. Thus, I feel bad means I have a sense of sorrow or regret.

An easier way to see this is to use a more straightforward verb: let’s replace ‘feel’ with ‘smell.’

I smell bad refers to the condition of smelling (i.e., I stink). I smell badly refers to the action of smelling (i.e., there’s something wrong with my olfactory senses or nose).

Some people use the adverb form because they think ‘I feel badly’ sounds more literate or intelligent than ‘I feel bad.’ Well, it doesn’t; in fact, it could have just the opposite effect. My advice is to choose your words carefully.

Finally, if you don’t understand my reference to Christopher Buckley, it’s time for you to catch up on current events.


1 Comment »

  1. Jahzoone said,

    I found your site while searching Google for the answer, whether to use “who” or “that”. I agree with your usage guideline. Perhaps you don’t have the authority to mandate edict, at least you’ve helped one more person choose your point of view! Thanks for your Blog, Cheers

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