For some reason, hearing a person referred to as “that” sorta sets my teeth on edge. As in, “John is the guy that won the apple pie-eating and St. Pauli Girl-drinking contest.” It just doesn’t sound right, though I can’t exactly say why. Perhaps my uneasiness has something to do with Miss Thompson’s 10th grade English class, but dredging the depths of memory doesn’t bring up any specific prohibitions. Darn. Don’t you hate when that happens?
In fact, Patricia O’Conner, author of Woe is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English doesn’t have a problem with using “that” instead of “who.” As she notes, if “the girl that married dear old dad” sounds o.k., it’s because it is. Well, I have tremendous respect for Ms. O’Conner, and I know she must be right. Her little guide is the one I run to when I’ve got a quickie grammar question, and she’s never failed me. She makes the rules of grammar sing or at least hum a merry tune.
Still, I intend to persist stubbornly in referring to people as “who” rather than “that” What’s your take?