A Word, Please

People. People who need people. They’re the luckiest people in the world, according to some people. But according to other people, it’s not the people who need people but the people “that” need people who win.

OK, I’ll drop the funny girl business and explain.

There’s a lot of confusion out there about how to choose between “who” and “that.” Many people believe that “who” is the only way to go when referring to humans. In their view, “people who need people” is correct and “people that need people” is wrong.

But just this week I got an email from a reader who was taught that “people that need people” is the only correct option.

Who’s right? None of them, because sometimes “that” and “who” are interchangeable.

The more common belief that “that” can’t refer to people is good advice stretched too far. It’s based on the idea that “who” is better when referring to people because it’s specific to people. You can’t use it for inanimate objects, as in “The shirt who was on his back.” So “who” imbues its antecedent with a pulse, making it more human and the whole sentence more vivid.

That’s why I always prefer “who” to refer to humans. But folks who will tell you that you can’t use “that” for humans are out of line. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary has a usage note on this very subject, saying ” ‘that’ refers to persons or things.”

Personally, the only time I would opt for “that” to refer to people is when the alternative is not “who” but “whom.”

“Who” is a subject pronoun and “whom” is an object pronoun. For example, in “the man whom I hired,” you need the object form “whom” and not the subject form “who” because it’s functioning as the object of the verb “hired.”

But sometimes “whom” is just too formal to be appropriate. That leaves two options: You can replace “whom” with “that,” or you can omit the pronoun altogether: “the man I hired.” This omission is grammatical, by the way. It even has a name. It’s called the “zero relative” because you’re leaving out the relative pronoun “that.”

Relative pronouns are an exclusive club, containing only “that,” “which,” “who” and its alter-ego “whom.” These words wear many hats, functioning as different parts of speech depending on how they’re used in a sentence. For example, “who” can be a personal pronoun in “Who gave you that rose?” But they’re categorized as relative pronouns when they introduce a relative clause, which is clause that modifies a noun that came before it.

In “The car that he was driving was red,” the word “that” is the head of the relative clause “that he was driving,” which gives you more information about the noun “car.” It’s telling you which car we’re talking about. So this relative clause, headed up by the relative pronoun “that,” is modifying the noun “car.”

Similarly, in “The car, which he was driving, was red,” the relative pronoun is “which.” Obviously, “which” has some different properties. Teamed up with commas, it signals that you don’t need to know he was driving the car to know which car we’re talking about. But the grammar still works the same way: The “which” clause still modifies the noun “car.”

In “the man whom I marry” and “the man who marries me,” same thing. The relative clause adds further information about the noun “man.” But if you don’t like the sound of that “whom,” replacing it with “that” is one option, no matter what people say.

June Casagrande is the author of “The Best Punctuation Book, Period.”

She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

A Word, Please

I fielded a question recently about one of my favorite subjects: “whomever.”

Here’s the email: “Normally I have no difficulty with who/whom. I do when it comes to a sentence like ‘Give it to who(m)ever wants it.’ If the rephrasing would be ‘he wants it,’ it would be ‘whoever.’ If the rephrasing would be ‘give it to him,’ it would be ‘whomever.’ Which would you use?”

This subject it illustrates one of my favorite pieces of advice about grammar: Maybe it’s best to avoid “whom” altogether.

“Whom” and “whomever,” language authorities agree, are for formal speech and writing. If you’re involved in barroom brawl, no grammar book would insist you communicate in terms like “For whom was that obscene gesture intended?”

What constitutes formal speech or writing? The language authorities leave that up to the writer. You choose whether your message should be formal or not the same way you decide whether to wear a sport jacket or to crack a joke in a business meeting. It’s personal judgment, not rocket science.

But, unless you’re writing a doctoral thesis or a speech for the queen, you might want to avoid “whom” altogether because, once you start using it – once you send the message that you’re being formal – you have to keep using it. And you may be getting in over your head.

Many people know how to use “who” and “whom” in simple sentences. “Who” is a subject pronoun. “Whom” is an object pronoun. Subject pronouns perform the action of the verb: Who wants cake? Who knows? Who is on the list? Object pronouns work as objects of verbs or prepositions. Whom did you see? With whom was she dancing?

See how, in the penultimate example, “whom” is what’s being seen – not what’s doing the seeing? So it’s the object of the action, not the doer of it. But in the last example, “whom” is correct because prepositions like “with” and “to” take objects (“with him,” not “with he”; “to us,” not “to we”).

Once you understand this, choosing between “who” and “whom” can be as easy as choosing between “he” and “him.” But “whoever” and “whomever” aren’t as easy because often they sit in a strange position where you could make the case that they’re both a subject and an object.

Look at our original example: “Give it to who(m)ever wants it.”

Here we have a verb, “wants,” which needs a subject (“he wants,” not “him wants”).

But we also have a preposition, “to,” which needs an object (“give it to him,” not “to he”).

Or so it would appear. But there’s a grammar issue at play here that goes beyond the basics. In a sentence like our example, the object isn’t a single word. It’s a whole clause. And clauses need subjects.

In our example, the object of the preposition “to” isn’t just a pronoun like “whomever.” The object is the entire clause that follows, complete with the verb “wants.” That verb needs a subject – a job that only a subject pronoun like “whoever” is equipped to handle.

So the correct form is “Give it to whoever wants it.” Not whomever.

But watch what happens when we tweak the sentence a bit: “Give it to whomever you want.”

Suddenly, the object form is the right choice because the pronoun is no longer the subject of the verb. The subject of “want” is “you.” “Whomever” is the object of that want, hence the M.

The shorter forms “who” and “whom” can sometimes work this way. Compare “the man whom I marry” with “the man who marries me.” Both are correct. In the first, the pronoun is the object of the verb “marry.” But in the second, it’s the subject.

So when you set a formal tone by using “whom,” you need to know that sometimes whole clauses can be objects. Or sidestep the whole sticky subject by just not using “whom” at all.

June Casagrande is the author of “It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences.”

She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

A Word, Please

If I were to write that the Beatles were a great band, would that give you pause? That is, would you notice anything funny about how I’ve written the band’s name?

Most people, I’m guessing, would not. But close readers might notice something odd – something a reader named Thomas observed in one of my recent columns.

“The singing group’s trademarked name is The Beatles (with a capital T). However, your sentence did not capitalize the letter T when you referenced their official group name,” Thomas wrote. “What is the grammar rule you used to avoid capitalizing this instance of the word ‘the?’ “

Interesting choice of words: “the grammar rule you used.” In fact, it’s not a grammar rule. And the rule that was applied, well, it was never up to me to use it.

Not everything that appears under a writer’s byline was the writer’s choice. Many matters of punctuation, word choice, capitalization and even grammar are decided by the publication’s style rules. And style rules for capitalization often reflect the belief that capital letters in running text should be avoided whenever possible.

There are two reasons. First, too many capital letters in a sentence can be visually jarring, disrupting the flow of a sentence and giving an all-around unprofessional look. Second, the practice of toying with capital letters, which a lot of companies like to do because it gets readers’ attention, is disliked by news media for precisely that reason: It’s just not appropriate to let companies scream for attention in the pages of a legitimate newspaper through use of excessive or wacky capital letters.

So if you want to name your new product THeVeRyBESTwidGet, that’s not how you’ll see your name in most news media. Interestingly, though, if you name your product an iPad, you may well see your name capitalized according to your preference. Here’s how one paper, the Los Angeles Times, addresses these matters in its style guide: “The Times follows the company’s preference if the internal capitals begin a new syllable: HomeBase, QualMed. But The Times does not permit uppercasing letters that do not start new syllables.”

Still, publishers impose their own rules of logics and aesthetics, which is why at the beginning of a sentence, “iPad” may well be written “IPad.” A car called “fortwo” by its maker could be “Fortwo” in an article, even mid-sentence

Of course, if a company goes by initials that are each pronounced individually, all of those can be uppercase: IBM, CBS, etc.

None of this explains why the name “The Beatles” often gets written as “the Beatles.” Obviously, John, Paul, Ringo and George weren’t preoccupied with the potential visual impact a capital T could get them. Instead, it’s just obvious that, because proper names capitalize the first letter of each word, the T should be up.

But publishers concerned with aesthetics and the visual flow of words can trump this rule in their own pages when they see fit. As an editor who’s been lowercasing the T in The for a long time, I can’t help but like this rule. Yet there’s an irony I should point out. Many publications, the L.A. Times included, make one major exception: themselves. When certain papers use their own nicknames – The Times, The Tribune, The Herald or what have you – they follow a policy of always capitalizing the T in The.

That irony aside: When writing a proper name that begins with “The,” it usually makes sense to capitalize the T. But if you want to mimic the look of a published news article and the name appears somewhere other than the beginning of the sentence, you have the option of leaving it lowercase.

June Casagrande is the author of “The Best Punctuation Book, Period.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.