The Vanishing Who

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

It’s sad to see a word go practically extinct through incorrect usage.

The word is “who.”

It’s one of the time-honored Five Ws and an H taught in every journalism school.

These days, and for quite some time, people say “that” instead of “who.” Even broadcasters and journalists who should know better.

Dean Richards, a WGN-TV announcer in Chicago, recently said “he was the guy that made things happen” while profiling someone in the entertainment business. But he’s not the only one. You hear it all the time: “people that…,” or “she was the one that…,” “he was the baseball pitcher that….”

I cringe.

When I write about correct word usage, I usually get an email from somebody saying, “who cares?” That’s the problem. People don’t care about words, as if they don’t matter. Words do matter.

I care. 

Words have a purpose. We use them to communicate, to say or write what we mean or intend. A love letter would be meaningless if it failed to contain endearing, meaningful words. Exactly the right words, to sway and beguile. 

The wrong word can cause confusion or even anger because it was not what you meant to say. Does inflammable mean something will not burn or is not combustible? Don’t bet on it. Knowing the difference can be life-saving. Flammable and inflammable mean the same thing.

As for “who,” the Associated Press Stylebook makes it quite clear: “Who is the pronoun used for references to human beings and to animals with a name.”

Who is for people, not inanimate objects. “That” is for things.

In the Elements of Style, William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White give an example: “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.”

Maybe it was a year of Covid captivity that makes me hyper-sensitive to “who.” The word does not get the respect it deserves. I know over time, in the history of the world, words fall out of favor and new ones appear. “Ain’t” is “beyond rehabilitation” and carries a stigma according to the American Heritage Dictionary, considered acceptable in speech but not in writing. 

“Who” has a rightful place in our vocabulary, especially if it is used correctly. It should not fall from usage because people just don’t know any better.

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The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago Professional Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.

Professional Journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org.

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