August 12, 2010

Weekly Language Usage Tips: who or that & further or farther

Posted in farther and further, who or that at 9:00 am by dlseltzer

Sighting 1:

From the Wall Street Journal Blogs:

Withdrawing LVAD Support Is Ethical

02 Aug 2010 – It is ethically and legally permissible to turn off LVAD in compliance with patience requests.

Sighting 2:

From the Wall Street Journal, AUGUST 11, 2010:

Implementation of Financial Overhaul Gets Off to Rocky Start

Banks of all sizes will likely see a period of confusion with regulatory expectations in flux. Banking regulators were “weeks away” from finalizing a long-running effort to set risk-based capital standards for smaller, less-complex banks, say people familiar with the matter. That effort is delayed indefinitely because officials had incorporated credit-rating use in the process.

The result is a state of uncertainty, said Cristeena Naser, senior counsel at the American Bankers Association. “Banks are really going to be in a conundrum. … There are so many things being thrown at them all at once,” she said.

Surely she meant quandary, not conundrum.

Surely, she did.

Tip 1: who or that

A reader writes:

I may have asked you this before or perhaps not. You may have covered it and I missed it. All things are possible. Nevertheless, if you have a moment to consider the following sentence which is typical of many sentences in papers that concern patients (who are human beings), I would be most appreciative. In retyping it, I see that there are several basic grammar issues worthy of comment but I am concerned solely with the use of “that” instead of “who.” Since these are people who receive medical care isn’t “that” unacceptable?

“A case-control study including consecutive patients that refused medical aid (RMA) compared to a control set of non-RMA patients evaluated by our EMS department.”

We did discuss this before, back in 2008-oh, where does the time go-but another go-round is warranted. What I said back then is that while ‘that’ can be used as a relative pronoun with people, it is grating for some of us, and I recommend the use of ‘who’ with people and ‘that’ with things. I stand by that point of view, but when researching this, I found many other thoughts (all of which are correct, by the way):

Use ‘who’ to refer to people but use that when referring to a group or class of people.

She is one of the people that decided to participate in the food drive.

This doesn’t sound right to me (although I will concede that it is). I would prefer:

She is one of the people who decided to participate in the food drive.


The class that went to the museum did very well on the test.

This sounds better to me than

‘The class who went to the museum…’

Use ‘who’ when referring to people and use ‘that’ when referring to people or things.

We looked at the sample of people that chose not to participate in the study.

The engines that were covered with rust were not working.

[NOTE: this brings us to the issue of when to use ‘which’ and when to use ‘that,’ but I’ll save that discussion for another day.]

When a sentence has more than one clause with a relative pronoun and ‘who’ has already been used, use ‘that’ in the second clause.

There is the scientist who is the smartest person in the room except the lecturer that is speaking now.

Actually, I have to disagree with this one. It seems awkward. I would rather see:

There is the scientist who is the smartest person in the room except the lecturer who is speaking now.

I guess if there is a question of potential confusion, it may be useful to substitute the ‘who’ with ‘that.’

If you are writing about animals, there are a couple of views:

Since animals aren’t people, always use ‘that.’

The dog that wore the velvet and diamond collar would not stop barking.

However, some say if the animals have names, use ‘who.’

Binky, who wore a velvet and diamond collar, would not stop barking.

Finally, when you are writing about people and animals use ‘that’ unless they are named; in that case, use ‘who.’

The zookeeper and the zebras that were crossing the field had to wait for the elephants to move by.

Bob and Binky, who were crossing the field, had to wait for the elephants.

The main thing I learned in researching the issue of ‘who versus that’ is that the people who care about this enough to write on the topic are very polite. While opinionated, their discourse is quite mild with talk about grating, jarring, getting one’s dander up, etc. With most other topics, you find fire and fury, but with this topic, everyone is calm and courteous. Maybe it is because they are writing about a preference rather than a rule. The writer who was most inflamed about the use of ‘that’ or ‘who’ is Garner who wrote:

“…people that has always been good English, and it is a silly fetish to insist that who is the only relative pronoun that can refer to humans.”

That’s about as riled up as people get on this issue.

But going back to the reader’s question. While I agree with the reader that patients are people, and I agree that the sentence would sound better using the word ‘who,’ and I would definitely write it with ‘who’ myself,

“A case-control study including consecutive patients who refused medical aid (RMA) compared to a control set of non-RMA patients evaluated by our EMS department.”

it’s not wrong to use ‘that.’ As sad as that may be.

Tip 2: further or farther

A reader writes:

Care to comment on “further” and “farther”?

This topic is another golden oldie, first discussed in 2008. I agree that it’s time for an update.

‘Farther’ refers to physical distance-something that can be measured. It is not interchangeable with’ further’ which refers to figurative distance.

We don’t have much farther to go before we reach our destination.

This is correct if our destination is a place, but it is wrong if our destination is some sort of Zen state or something less literal than a place found on a map. Let me start with a simpler example.

You have to drive five miles farther before you reach the stadium.

Okay, that’s pretty easy: farther = physical distance.

The further I get in studying both parties’ positions, the more frustrated I become with those on both sides.

Here, we aren’t talking about a literal, physical distance that we can measure; we are talking about moving along figuratively, examining the political morass.

Massachusetts is farther north than Virginia.

I can actually prove that.

Massachusetts is further to the left politically than Virginia.

Although I have my suspicions, I can’t actually prove this without carrying out some kind of study.

Got it?

All of this being said, there is much speculation that as English evolves, ‘farther’ will eventually become obsolete, and ‘further’ will assume the meanings of both literal and figurative distance. Even now, there are those who say that you can’t go wrong using ‘further’ no matter the context.

I won’t go that far, yet. I think that many people pay attention to this distinction. So for the sake of precision, and to keep our reviewers of all sorts happy, let’s continue to use farther for physical distance and further for figurative distance.


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