An American Editor

August 20, 2012

The Business of Editing: Language Pet Peeves

I don’t know many editors who are so laid back that they don’t have a pet peeve or two when it comes to language usage. Perhaps that is the sign of an editorial bent. I know I certainly have pet peeves (note: these are American English oriented and I am aware that different rules and perspectives apply outside American English usage). A couple of my peeves revolve around who/that and whether a corporation or company is singular/plural and an it/they.

I guess of all my pet peeves, the most aggravating one is the misuse of who and that. When I read a book and see a sentence like “Shirley was a sorceress that possessed a magic wand,” I just know that whoever edited the book (assuming anyone did) wasn’t a professional editor — or maybe it was a professional editor as I occasionally have seen the misuse in professionally edited manuscripts. What bothers me is that I see this error in manuscripts from people of all educational levels and walks of life. This isn’t something that is restricted to free indie novels.

Who is a nominative pronoun; it refers, in nongrammar parlance, to humans. It is used as the subject of a verb (“It was Felicity who scored highest in the exam”) and as a predicate nominative (“Beware the folk who know where you live”). The point is, that in its simplest application, who refers to humans and, sometimes, to their humanoid substitutes. How difficult is that!

That is a reference to an object, to something inanimate, something that has no human qualities — yes, like a corporation (regardless of the U.S. Supreme Court’s assertion that corporations are persons), or perhaps a demon (but give a demon some human qualities and who might be more appropriate).

The point is that use of who and that is generally not difficult. It is simply a matter of not writing as informally as one speaks. Because it is assumed that language users recognize when to use who, the usage guides focus on the difference between who and whom, not who and that. Unfortunately, it appears that too little attention is being paid by schools to language fundamentals, because the misuse of who and that seems to be increasing, but then so are other misuses and abuses of language.

A similar problem occurs when addressing a corporation. Many authors speak of a single corporation as if it were multiple corporations (corporations here is universally used to represent businesses and other inanimate [nonhuman] objects) and so choose to use the plural form of verbs and adjectives. In American English, one is still one, so a single corporation still requires a singular verb and adjective. Yet, you can pick up many books — fiction and nonfiction, academic and nonacademic — and find that the author and editor have adopted a non-American perspective and interpreted the singular corporation as plural.

Whether it is singular or plural matters because it sets the stage for the grammar of the rest of the sentence and the following sentences in the same paragraph. For example, singular requires this and was; plural requires these and were. Yet it is not unusual to read a sentence whose subject is a corporation in which there is a mismatch between plural and singular.

More problematic to me, however, is how many authors and editors treat the inanimate corporation as if it were human. They, she, and other human-nuanced words are used when speaking of a single corporation. Yet a singular inanimate subject requires it as the personal pronoun, not they or she, when speaking of the singular subject. (The plural subject, e.g., “these corporations,” can use they and other plurals.) Questions: When and how did an inanimate object gain gender? Why is the language used to refer to a corporation often feminine (why not masculine?)?

It is true that these types of errors do not cause the average reader to stop and wonder what the author means. Such errors are so commonplace that most readers ignore them and probably do not even recognize that they are errors. The real question is whether authors and editors have any responsibility to correctly use words and thus subtly educate readers as regards proper language usage.

I think authors and editors do have such a responsibility, especially the person who proclaims himself or herself to be a professional editor. When we reinforce poor communication and language skills, we help to speed the decline of our society. Imagine a future world where “u r gr8″ is the standard written communication. How pleasing would you find reading a 300-page book that is replete with twit sentences?

The proper use of language is something that an author should be cognizant of because it can help in locating a professional editor. But an author who doesn’t understand, for example, the difference between who and that (or between which and that), won’t recognize whether an editor is a professional or an amateur, and thus won’t get the best return for his or her money.

Again, I need to emphasize that an error-free book is almost impossible to create. Perfection is an elusive goal. But there are certain fundamentals that can and should be expected from a professional editor, two of which are knowing when to use who or that and when to use it rather than she. It just isn’t that difficult!

34 Comments »

  1. Well, I’ve learned something today. As a UK-based editor who works on both American and British English manuscripts, I would always change ‘that’ to ‘who’ if a person was being referred to in a British English text, but I have seen ‘that’ used so often in the same context in US manuscripts that I assumed the rule was different across the pond. I shall change my practice and attempt to learn more about American grammar rather than making assumptions!

    Comment by Nik Prowse — August 20, 2012 @ 4:39 am | Reply

  2. Your post isn’t quite correct, Rich. “That” can be used grammatically to represent a person. It has been used consistently that way since 825, according to the OED. Here’s more on it: http://thewritingresource.net/2011/02/17/grammar-bite-who%E2%80%99s-that/.

    Comment by Erin Brenner (@ebrenner) — August 20, 2012 @ 6:54 am | Reply

    • It is true, Erin, that no rule is absolute and that that can be used to represent a person. Garner notes in his discussion of who, “Who is the relative pronoun for human beings (though that is also acceptable); that and which are the relative pronouns for anything other than humans, including entities created by humans. But writers too often forget this elementary point . . .” (Garner, Modern American Usage, p 862). Whether this statement contradicts Garner’s assertion that that is acceptable in place of who is open to question. The argument that who and that are essentially interchangeable falters in sentences like “Who is it?” (would you say, “That is it?”) and “Who would you hit with that bat?” (would you say, “That would you hit with that bat?”). If the words were equally valid for the particular use, I think they should be wholly interchangeable. That that has been used since 825 A.D. as a substitute for who only shows longevity not correctness. I think a professional editor needs to distinguish between the usages.

      Comment by americaneditor — August 20, 2012 @ 8:18 am | Reply

  3. I think that authors and editors (professional editors in particular) do have a responsibility to be role models for proper language usage. I also agree that those authors who don’t have great language skills don’t know what they don’t know and will struggle to recognise a “good” editor – or even that they need one.

    Comment by bambusasolutions — August 20, 2012 @ 8:13 am | Reply

  4. ‘off of’ sends me into paroxysms – as in ‘she got off of the sofa’. Use it in colloquial dialogue if you feel you must (I tell my students) but *nowhere* else. *

    Comment by judimoore — August 20, 2012 @ 8:17 am | Reply

  5. Who/that is one of my biggest pet peeves. Perhaps you can find grammar guides that will say you CAN use “that” to refer to a person, but why would you want to? “Who” is the more precise term; it makes your writing sharper. Using “that” to refer to a person may not be incorrect, but it is lazy writing.

    Comment by Tammy Ditmore — August 20, 2012 @ 9:36 am | Reply

  6. Oh, I agree 100% that we (writers and editors) have a responsibility to provide a subtle level of education to our readers by getting things right. I fix the who/that problem a LOT, and the company as it/singular as well. I don’t often see a company referred to as a she, but would change that to it.

    The hardest one, for me, is “they” when referring to an individual and not knowing if it’s a man or woman, when using plurals doesn’t quite work. I’m wrapping up an edit on a manual where that’s the case, and it’s very awkward.

    I don’t expect amateur authors to understand the difference between that and who, or that and which, or a myriad other language details. I expect them to know that they may not understand such distinctions and need someone like me or my colleagues who work with individual authors (I rarely do) to fix their prose, and to trust our changes.

    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — August 20, 2012 @ 9:48 am | Reply

    • That/which is a boggy area for me. Who and that: got it. Which and that: not so much. Anyone care to nail it down in a sentence?

      Nouns are regularly made into verbs now. ‘Supersize me’. ‘She medalled at the Games’. Language evolving? I guess so. But it does bring my fusty ol’ pedant to the fore.

      Comment by judimoore — August 20, 2012 @ 10:42 am | Reply

    • myriad is an adjective, not a noun. “or myriad other language details…” is correct. That’s one of my pet peeves.

      Comment by Victoria Glazar — September 25, 2012 @ 9:53 am | Reply

  7. I agree with using ‘who’ for persons and ‘that’ for things. My pet peeve is when people turn an intransitive verb into a transitive one: “I wouldn’t step foot in there” is becoming more prevalent. When did the phrase stop being “set foot”? And “grow the business” sets my teeth on edge. If you substitute ‘children’ for ‘business’ the poor usage becomes clear. You would never say “I want to grow my children,” but you would say “I want my children to grow.” Ditto for one’s business.

    Comment by Pat Valdata — August 20, 2012 @ 9:54 am | Reply

    • That’s silly. You don’t grow your children because they grow on their own. But if you have a vegetable garden, then you grow your vegetables. Stop watering/fertilizing/taking care of them, and they stop growing, and wither and die. Likewise a business, if you stop showing up for work or don’t bother to go out and reach new clients or customers. The only way kids stop growing is if you lock them in the basement, and don’t feed them. And then they die. And you go to prison.

      Comment by Allen — August 21, 2012 @ 11:12 pm | Reply

      • Allen, look up the word ‘grow’. The American Heritage Dictionary shows the example “The business grew under new management” as its example for the meaning of “to expland, gain” under the entry for the intransitive form. Intransitive verbs do not take an object. The only transitive form of the verb has the meaning of “to cause to grow” in the sense of raising crops, or “to let grow” by not doing something, like not shaving in order to grow a beard. I know that language evolves all the time, and I accept that “grow the business” is becoming the norm, but it still makes me shudder to hear it!

        Comment by Pat Valdata — August 22, 2012 @ 10:52 am | Reply

  8. Got you! You write “the most aggravating one is the misuse of who and that”, and unless American English has a different meaning for the word “Aggravate” than English usage, then Aggravate means to make worse, not to annoy….

    Also, I hate the current use of “issue” when what is meant is “problem”. This infuriates me, and last but not least the use of “hopefully” when “hope” is meant, as in “hopefully we will arrive today” rather than “I hope we will arrive today” Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.

    Comment by ebookano — August 20, 2012 @ 5:54 pm | Reply

    • Tony, according to the American Heritage Dictionary (5th ed), one definition of aggravate is “2. to annoy or exasperate.” The usage note indicates that the use of aggravate in the sense of annoy dates back to the 1600s and is pervasive. In the American Heritage‘s 2005 Usage Panel survey, 83% of the panel members accepted this sense. On the other hand, Garner notes in Modern American Usage, that the use of aggravate for annoy has not gained the approval of stylists and should be avoided in formal writing. (Does this blog count as formal writing?) Garner goes on to note that use of aggravate for annoy is common in American usage. A check of the thesaurus shows the words to be treated as synonymous. The older (than Garner’s Modern American Usage) Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage notes that most commentators agree that aggravate can be used for annoy, although there are a few holdouts. Fowler’s Modern English Usage basically says the words are interchangeable in modern usage. So maybe it’s an “almost gotcha” :).

      Comment by americaneditor — August 21, 2012 @ 7:43 am | Reply

  9. Having read your post about language use, and in particular your dislike of the misuse of” that” and “who” I was amused to come across the following in a Kurt Vonnegut story I was reading, and I quote:
    “The Brass wanted him to be a super computing machine that (who) could plot the course of a rocket”
    The supercomputer in question was displaying all manner of human characteristics, thus the use of “who” in brackets. Thus Vonnegut had the same respect for the correct use of language as you do Rich. Good company to be in say I.

    Comment by ebookano — August 21, 2012 @ 4:05 am | Reply

  10. “Shirley was a sorceress that possessed a magic wand,”

    I call foul here. It’s a very rare native English speaker who would ever speak or write such a sentence. That kind of example is seen all the time in the usage guides by incompetent grammarians (witness, for example, the hideous example sentences in Strunk & White’s “Elements of Style” of things that violate the rules of “good” writing).

    “That” is almost never used by English speakers to refer to specific persons. It’s used most often with groups of persons (“There are a lot of people *that* believe there are no problems with this relative pronoun usage”). It’s used with generic persons (“The cosplayer that stole my animatronic cat ears”).

    You can use “who” in those circumstances (and when teaching English as a Second Language it’s a nice rule–they don’t inherit the natural “ear” that every native speaker has), but if you insist that “that” is wrong, then you’ll also have to insist that a vast majority of the English language’s most well-read and most respected literary authors made mistakes in using such language. If you’re ready to declare your writing the superior to Chaucer, Shakespeare, Jonson, the 47 scholars who put together the Authorized Edition of the Bible, Stevenson, Pope, Johnson, Austen, Dickens, Thackeray, James, Twain, Wilde, and countless others, then just step forward and do it. Say they were ignorant and lazy and *imprecise*. Say that your writing is simply better. Go ahead, just do it.

    Comment by Allen — August 21, 2012 @ 11:34 pm | Reply

    • Allen, you don’t teach, do you? If you did, you would find that there are, indeed, many native English speakers who will write “Shirley was a sorceress that possessed a magic wand.” In fact, I have noticed an upswing in this construction in college student writing over the past couple of years.

      Comment by Pat Valdata — August 22, 2012 @ 10:34 am | Reply

  11. [...] Rant about your pet peeve. Does a particular mistake really make your blood boil? Do you grit your teeth every time someone says “for all intensive purposes”? Does it make you scream whenever someone verbs a noun? Blog (forgive the verbed noun) about it. The outlet will do you good. [...]

    Pingback by Focus On: Grammar Blogs | The Daily Post at WordPress.com — August 22, 2012 @ 10:11 am | Reply

  12. Mine is more of a spelling pet peeve. I cannt stand it when people spell through/threw wrong. “I threw the ball.” OMG I want to pull my hair out. I see it so often it makes me wonder if most Americans even finished the 3rd grade. LOL

    Comment by Writer Babe — August 22, 2012 @ 10:43 am | Reply

    • “I went threw the hallway.” I am just now waking up and realizing I made a complte fool out of myself. LOL Here is the rest of the comment. I wish I could edit my 1st comment!

      Comment by Writer Babe — August 22, 2012 @ 10:51 am | Reply

  13. *cannot (I just woke up so I have an excuse. LOL)

    Comment by Writer Babe — August 22, 2012 @ 10:44 am | Reply

  14. :face palm: I give up.

    Comment by Writer Babe — August 22, 2012 @ 10:52 am | Reply

  15. My pet peeve pertains mostly to the people in the press who consistently misuse the expression “begs the question” to mean “raises the question” in place of “avoids (answering) the question.” This is particularly pernicious (in my view) because 1) “begs the question” is a beautiful phrase that has no other equivalent in the language, 2) use to mean “raises the question” makes no sense and adds no value to language usage, and 3) the press in particular would benefit the most by using the expression in its correct meaning because…they so often have to deal with people whose answers “beg” the reporters’ questions!

    Comment by Basicallystan — August 22, 2012 @ 10:14 pm | Reply

  16. [...] Rant about your pet peeve. Does a particular mistake really make your blood boil? Do you grit your teeth every time someone says “for all intensive purposes”? Does it make you scream whenever someone verbs a noun? Blog (forgive the verbed noun) about it. The outlet will do you good. [...]

    Pingback by Focus On: Grammar Blogs | Footie Network — August 24, 2012 @ 2:19 pm | Reply

  17. My biggest gripe is people here in MN say this all the time (and I never heard it in other parts of the Midwest):
    ex. “I borrowed my book to Sally.” (instead of LENT)
    ex. “Will you please borrow me that book?” (instead of “will you please lend me that book?”) Maybe they only think “lend” has to do with banks and borrowing?

    Also, I would like your definition of when to use “who” and “whom”. Thanks.

    Comment by stellarstanton — August 25, 2012 @ 7:52 pm | Reply

    • I’ll consider the who/whom problem for a future post.

      Comment by americaneditor — August 26, 2012 @ 7:31 am | Reply

      • Please do. I’m forever second-guessing myself with this one. :)

        Comment by Vicki — August 26, 2012 @ 7:52 am | Reply

  18. yes, Exactly proper use of a language is important, and I hate i when authors make mistakes in famous news channels and papers…

    Comment by Language Issues — August 28, 2012 @ 7:30 am | Reply

  19. When it comes to editing, it always amazes me when I find a number of typos in a book that is in its nth print. Why don’t corrections take place before the next edition? Just curious…

    Comment by It's only P! — September 5, 2012 @ 4:12 pm | Reply

  20. “Alot” became my pet peeve when marking papers…

    Comment by yvetted — November 2, 2012 @ 3:40 pm | Reply

  21. I try to be tolerant and patient, but there are a few things that drive me up the wall.
    Lay for lie (I’m going to lay down for a bit.)
    Putting apostrophes in decades (1920’s)
    Most of my peeves are stylistic, though: repeating words excessively, going in circles with the logic, and so on.
    My heart doesn’t skip a beat with mistakes like its/it’s, subject/verb agreement, improper parallel structure. I just fix them and move on. It’s par for the course in the day of an editor *sigh*

    Comment by Gabby — February 14, 2013 @ 10:57 pm | Reply

  22. I’ve never heard someone else rant about this, but one of my pet peeves is the use of “absolutely” instead of a simple “yes”. “Absolutely” is rarely the proper answer to most questions, but I hear people saying “absolutely” to such mundane questions as, “May I sit here?” or “Would you like lunch?” It drives me nuts.

    Comment by amanandhishoe — March 30, 2014 @ 12:55 am | Reply


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