By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

A columnist that makes a mistake

In a column about people whose hobby is writing letters to newspapers, the Boston Globe’s Alex Beam takes a poke at one John Zack of Hopkinton, whose blog, ZACKly Right, is devoted to making fun of the Globe. But it only takes a moment for Beam, in the course of criticizing Zack’s grasp of grammar, to run off the grammatical rails himself. Beam writes:

The site touts itself as “a spout-off space for a taxpayer that endures the nutty liberalism of the Boston Globe and the nutty liberalism of all those that need the Globe to know how they think.” Shouldn’t that read “a taxpayer who endures” and “those who need the Globe”? Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

In fact, both examples Beam cites are restrictive phrases, and though it has become customary to precede them with who, it is perfectly acceptable to use that. Here is what the American Heritage Book of English Usage has to say:

Some people say that you can only use who and not that to introduce a restrictive relative clause that identifies a person. But that has been used in this way for centuries. It is a quintessential English usage, going back to the Old English period, and has been used by our best writers. So it is entirely acceptable to write either the man that wanted to talk to you or the man who wanted to talk to you.

In other words, Beam should have resisted.

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  1. Anonymous

    Beam should have resisted, but I’ll admit that it irks me when a writer uses “that” to refer to a person or to persons instead of “who.” As far as I’m concerned, “who” should be used to refer to a person or to persons, and “that” should be used otherwise.But at least the blogger should be applauded for not using “which” instead of “that.”–raj

  2. mike_b1

    Who edits Beam, Dan? It takes two (or more) to tango in print.

  3. Lis Riba

    As I learned it, * “who” is used exclusively when referring to people* “which” is used exclusively when referring to things* “that” can be used interchangeably.

  4. Steve

    Good to see Raj and Lis Riba disagree with the American Heritage Book of English Usage.

  5. mike_b1

    Speaking of mistakes, did you catch the Nov. 20 issue of Newsweek? The story “The Prodigal Returns” includes graphics of the House and Senate results that are rife with statistical erors. For example, it claims Nick Lampson beat Shelly Sekula-Gibbs by 10% when in fact he beat her by 10 percentage points. I counted eight such mistakes in all on that spread.I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Journalists can’t do math.

  6. Anonymous

    Go look at the ZACKly Right site. Alex was being nice.Hey o-fish-l, looks like we’ve found a site which might appreciate your unique blend of knee-jerk right wing opinions and schoolmarmish charm.

  7. adamg

    What? No debate about “who” vs. “whom?” As a Webhead, what I find weird about the online version of Beam’s column is that it links to a non-Globe version of an earlier Beam column, with no ads or navigation or nothin.’ Think of all the ad revenue going down the drain with people who click on the link!

  8. Anonymous

    if the clumsy AHBOEU can’t put “only” where it belongs, why should we trust it?off to check what Mr. Fowler has to say …

  9. Rick in Duxbury

    Dan,Get ready to be immortalized by “Mr. Fussy”. Beam is seldom wrong but never in doubt, the sole possessor of the last word.

  10. Anonymous

    You know Alex Beam is funny and bright…however, his columns tend to be saturated with arrogance and Yale-elitism.

  11. Anonymous

    They are not!–A Yalie.He is absolutely right about “that.” The American Heritage Dictionary is one of those that sanctions usage over “correctness” and I bet it says “alright” is all right, too. People who care about how they write do not use “that” instead of “who.” Whether the AHD says so or not, it makes the writer sound illiterate.

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