The Naked Writer


I receive a weekly financial newsletter in which the author routinely calls people “that” and companies “who.” I also find this goof all the time in student work, but was horrified to see the error on a grammar site the other day—the blogger repeatedly referring to people as “that.”

Well, people are people. We humans aren’t things, and we have a perfectly good set of pronouns to use in referring to us.

The girl who took the ice cream knows who she is.

To Whom It May Concern…

The boy whose dish ran away with the spoon went hungry.

Whoever answers the call first will be given the position.

He gave the job to whomever he saw first that day.

Yes, in casual conversation, we might say:

He was the boy that she went out with.

In casual writing, though, we would say:

He was the boy who she went out with.

Indeed, more formally, we might say:

He was the boy whom she went out with.

The trend is to be casual and use “who” instead of “whom.” This is, in part, because we’ve gotten away from the idea that we mustn’t end a sentence with a preposition, such as:

He was the boy with whom she went out.

The “with whom” tends to be too formal for most purposes, and we now know we’re allowed to end sentences with prepositions. The advice to not end a sentence with a preposition comes from the way Latin was spoken, and Latin isn’t spoken much these days.

Let me add a word about pets. Pets we know can be referred to by gender and also as a “who” type being:

My dog, Alfred, who sleeps in a heated bed, doesn’t mind the winters anymore, though he used to.

My cat, Sadie, who goes with me on the subway in her quilted bag, is very well behaved.

This type of use is different than the way we refer to, say, wild animals:

The crocodiles that congregate here frighten me.

Now, about referring to corporations and organizations as “who.” No. Corporations and organizations do not respire, excrete waste, or reproduce. They are inanimate, and though the Supreme Court believes corporations are persons (Citizens United), they are not.

The Supreme Court, who ruled in Citizens United… No. Just because the court seems to be made up of persons doesn’t make it a person—because it’s also comprised of much more than simply the jurists. It’s also a conceptual entity. So, we would say: The Supreme Court, which ruled in Citizens United… etc.

That about sums up what I wanted to say. At least on this subject. For the moment.


I have some inspiring classes coming up at Writer’s Digest University

  • 11/17/2016 – 12/29/2016, The Art of Storytelling 102: Showing vs. Telling
  • 12/08/2016 – 03/02/2017, 12 Weeks to a First Draft (a 12-week class for those focused on making a good start in writing that novel)
  • 12/15/2016 – 01/26/2016, Writing the Mystery Novel

You can also buy one of my novels at Amazon. Last up was Question Woman & Howling Sky in print or as a download. Or download The Naked Writer for some comprehensive writing advice—style and punctuation.



The Naked Writer

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