Thursday, August 6, 2015

You may be a who, or you may be a that

(Originally published in the Boston Sunday Globe, August 24, 2003.) 
THE WORD / Jan Freeman: Who that?

"The man that is failing the people more than anyone is Gray Davis," said fledgling candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger of the governor he hopes to supplant. Reader Dave Furlong, a California voter himself, would have changed that sentence: He liked our recent treatment of which vs. that, he e-mailed, "but I wish you had addressed that/who also, as in 'Everyone that wants to go, line up here.' In editing, I find it's a very common error."

Very common, yes; an error, only sometimes. Arnold may not be a native speaker, but here his English is traditional, if debatable. The insistence on who for people, on the grounds that calling a man (or woman or child) that is somehow insulting, is a fairly modern prejudice.

"A woman that deliberates is lost," Joseph Addison wrote in 1713. The Oxford English Dictionary also coughs up O. Henry's "I'm no traitor to a man that's been my friend" (1910) and Ring Lardner's "Imagine being married to a woman that plays five hundred like she does" (1924).

Some stylebooks, including the Globe's, do tell writers to avoid that in referring to people. But throughout the English millennium -- from before the Wycliffe Bible's "the people that dwelt in darkness" (1382) to "The girl that I marry" (Irving Berlin, 1946), that has been a people pronoun.

That had a brief fall from grace in the 16th century, when a fad for using who or whom instead swept the English literati (including Addison, who revised his writings to reflect his new faith). But by the 20th century, that was back in favor, as the usage-edict record attests.*

In a 1906 American grammar textbook, John Wisely tells pupils that who "expresses persons or personified things," while that is for "inanimate objects, lower animals, persons." Fowler, in the 1926 edition of Modern English Usage, confesses that he'd like to see even more use of that in constructions like "the distinguished visitors that the Crawfords had."

Bergen and Cornelia Evans, in A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage (1957), note mildly that some writers prefer who where persons are concerned: After centuries of "Our Father that art in heaven" (or "Our Father which art"), the Lord's Prayer now usually says who. But even Miss Thistlebottom, Theodore Bernstein's personification of grammar-school dogma, didn't draw a clear line on that: She would have told you, Bernstein says, that "which normally refers to things, who to persons, and that to either."

In his 1996 updating of Fowler, Robert Burchfield tries to make it simple: "Normally use who . . . following a human antecedent and that (or which) following an inanimate antecedent. Either who or that may be used when the antecedent is animate but not human, or when the antecedent is human but representative of a class."

Those guidelines (which would call Schwarzenegger's usage wrong) set forth a conceptual rationale, making the choice of who or that dependent on the abstractness of the pronoun's referent. So the barking dog that keeps you awake, two streets over, is different from the dog who goes out for a romp with you every day, an individual with a name. A cyborg that's on the assembly line becomes a who when it's programmed as a hunk. But unless it's banned by your local authority, that is a pronoun for people too -- some of the people, at least, some of the time.

*There's a detailed discussion of personal that in the indispensable Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage. I can't imagine why I didn't mention it here. 

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

"Shimmy" makes its move

In last week’s After Deadline column, Philip Corbett's list of recent goofs in the New York Times included this:
Carrying their passports, a loaf of bread and a plastic bag filled with orange juice, the men shimmied across the ship’s mooring rope that night ... 
Tsk-tsk, said Corbett: "'Shimmy' is a dance move involving a whole lot of shaking. To climb using hands and legs is to 'shinny' or just 'shin.'"

I learned this distinction too, as a young editor. But recently, I've begun to wonder whether it will -- or should -- survive.

My doubts began as I read coverage of the New York prisoners David Sweat and Richard Matt, whose daring escape involved "balancing on catwalks and shimmying down pipes" (in the New York Times) and shimmying "down an underground pipe" (in the Wall Street Journal). At first I took this as an example of the meaning's migration -- shimmy being used for shinny -- but I was enlightened when I read more detailed accounts. The two escapees actually exited inside the pipes, wiggling along like Little Egypt ("she crawls on her belly like a reptile!”). It was no dance move, but it wasn't "shinning," either. 

In many news examples, it's true, people who "shimmy" up flagpoles and down drainpipes are really shinning or shinnying. But is shimmy really "a grave mistake," as Baltimore Sun blogger John McIntyre once decreed, in such cases? Shinning up a pole requires a fair amount of hip-waggling, even if it's not done to music. As descriptions of bodily movement, the verbs overlap quite a bit; maybe it's not worth the effort to keep them separated.

Whatever the reason, shimmy has moved in on shin(ny) in a big way. I compared them on Google's Ngram Viewer in several different conjugations, and all the results were variations on this pattern: Shimmy rising in the '60s, then more steeply in the '80s, to challenge shin and shinny

And the usage mavens have been looking the other way. Shimmy vs. shin(ny) does appear in Paul Brians's list of Common Errors in English Usage, but it's not in the NYT stylebook, or the AP, or in Garner's Modern American Usage. I checked five or six of my other go-to usage references without finding it.

So maybe it's time to add shimmy and shin(ny) to McIntyre's excellent list of "dog whistle edits" -- the distinctions only copy editors know and love -- and admit that for increasing numbers of readers, shimmy is a perfectly good verb to describe wiggling one's way up (or down) a rope or pole.