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Who Vs. That? In The KUNC Newsroom, That's The Question

Grace Hood

Here at KUNC, the news hosts you hear on the radio can sometimes find themselves on the front lines of deciphering grammar questions and intercepting mistakes. There are simple errors like "who" versus "whom" to correct. Then there are questions that are puzzling and more complicated. Which is exactly where Morning Edition Host Erin O'Toole and I found ourselves.

We're sure it's like this in every workplace.

In my most recent story about Keota in the northeastern plains, I was sure of my grammar when I wrote the intro - that part you normally hear the host read on the radio:

Resource-rich Colorado left behind hundreds of ghost towns across the state. When most people think of these destinations, they imagine mountain towns abandoned after mining or gold panning operations went dried up. But Colorado's northeastern plains is also home to several towns left behind. As part of our community spotlight series, KUNC's Grace Hood reports on one such place that's history still lives on today.

It's this last part of the sentence that Erin O'Toole corrected. She changed it to:

As part of our community spotlight series, KUNC's Grace Hood reports on one such place whose history still lives on today.

"Who," "whose" and "that" are relative pronouns. There's a school of thought that believes writers should use "who" when talking about people and "that" when referring to inanimate objects. This is the school to which I belong.

But still, Erin said something felt wrong about using "that's."

"I just kept going, is that a mistake? That doesn't seem right," she said.

We took our question to Merriam-Webster's Kory Stamper. She brought us up to speed on the "who" versus "that" debate.

"Long story short, either is fine," said Stamper. "'Who' has been used of inanimate objects for a few centuries, and 'that' has been used of people for longer," she said.

Stamper went on:

One thing to consider is the arc of the story: how the place is talked about may guide which relative pronoun you use. If the town is talked about as pure place without much mention of inhabitants, like the mining ghost towns near Leadville, then you could use "that." But if the story talks about the people in the town or how the inhabitants have shaped the town, then it casts the town as a collection of people instead of a place. So if the story were about something like the revitalization of Old Golden with all these young people moving in, I might use "whose" there.

As a tip of the hat to Erin though, Stamper said there's one thing that makes my grammar incorrect: "That" does not have a possessive or genitive form in English.

"I didn't know that specifically," Erin said. "It just felt wrong. It's weird how much grammar we pick up just by osmosis."

So whenever you see "that's" it must be a contraction of "that has" or "that is." In this case we learned a little something from our dictionary friend.

"This is one of those weird quirks of English grammar: the possessive equivalent of 'that' fell out of use before Modern English, and so we moderns default to 'whose' as the possessive," Stamper explained.

With that debate settled, we bring you some famous quotes that rely on "whose" to do the sentence heavy lifting:

  • "I could a tale unfold whose lightest word / Would harrow up thy soul ..." William Shakespeare, Hamlet, 1601.
  • "... a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills thou mayest dig brass." Deuteronomy 8:9 (AV), 1611.
  • "Of man's first disobedience, and the fruit / Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste / Brought death into the World..." Milton, Paradise Lost, 1667.
  • "I can see its lights through my window, whose sash rattles." John Updike, New Yorker, 1989.
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