I wish I had a dollar every time I’ve heard the relative pronoun “that” used to refer to a person. I tell you, it’s just about enough to make me want to slap my own forehead repeatedly. Then again, being subjected to such atrocious grammar is painful enough.
Allow me to explain. The words “that,” “who” and “whom” are commonly referred to in grammatical cabals as “relative pronouns.” They are pronouns because they replace other, more complex nouns (persons, places or things). They are relative pronouns because they relate back to a noun previously mentioned. Hence the term “relative.”
Here’s Example #1:
A zombie apocalypse is imminent. Would you like me to fetch the axe that is in the garage?
In the second sentence, the word “that” is the relative pronoun that refers back to the noun, “axe.” Instead of having to make two separate statements (Would you like me to fetch the axe? The axe is in the garage.) we can combine them into one, fluid sentence using the relative pronoun “that” to refer back to “the axe” without repeating it.
And trust me, when a zombie apocalypse is imminent and seconds matter, you do not want to waste time repeating yourself!
The relative pronoun, “that” refers only to things. As in inanimate objects such as an axe, a shotgun, a samurai sword or anything else you might use to dispatch a zombie.
This, of course, may beg the question as to whether or not a zombie is an inanimate object. Obviously, if it’s coming after me, I won’t care. I will run, shoot or swing – whichever seems to make the most sense at the time – and if you’re in the way, you’d better get out of the way or you will probably be sorry.
So we move on to “who” and “whom” and how to use them properly. Because even if there is a zombie apocalypse and the entire planet goes to Hell in a zombie-scented gift basket, at least it will do so with some modicum of grammatical finesse. At least that’s what helps me get to sleep at night.
Example #2 can best be demonstrated with a lively little conversation:
John: There’s someone scratching on the front door!
Mary: That’s the man who lives across the street.
John: Do you think he’s a zombie?
Mary: I don’t know to whom you are referring, Dear, but that’s George Smith. I’d know him, anywhere. We have to let him in before the zombies get to him!
Mary may be a little nuts – And who wouldn’t be under the circumstances? – but she has impeccably fabulous grammar! Well done, Mary!
In her first response to John, she uses the relative pronoun “who” to refer to “the man” described as living across the street. He is the subject of the sentence. Since he is a person and not a thing, using the relative pronoun “that” would not be appropriate, here. In her final response to John, she uses the relative pronoun “whom” because this George Smith fellow is no longer the subject, but the the object of the preposition, “to.” He is the one to whom John and Mary are referring. In casual English, he is being referred to.
And yes, that last sentence was grammatically incorrect because it ended with a preposition dangling at the end. That’s considered rude in some circles, you know.
So, let’s review: Use “that” to refer back to things. Use “who” or “whom” to refer back to people.
And that, as they say, is that!