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Editing 101: I Am Not a "That" (and neither are you)

All of us have our pet peeves. They range from "people who drive slowly in the fast lane" to "flowers that only bloom during the one week while you're on vacation" and all sorts of things in the middle.

Editors are no exception.

Yes, we follow style guides that give us the basic (and not-so-basic) rules for how material is supposed to be presented. And we lean on dictionaries a lot to confirm spellings and proper usages of words. And we think about how our English teachers explained grammar and usage to us all those years ago. Then, once we have all of that in hand, we go out and apply it to what we're editing.

But, in the same way that we need to figure out the author's own style, we also tend to have our own.

A few examples:

  • Current usage is moving toward "they" as a singular, non-gender-specific pronoun. Your editor has to help you decide whether that is right for your piece of writing and its audience.

  • There is constant debate regarding whether or not sentences can end in prepositions. You and your editor should discuss how you feel about that. (Trust me - if you want to make that a hard-and-fast rule, you could end up with some pretty painful sentences.)

And a huge pet peeve of mine, which I probably altered about one thousand times in one of the last things I worked on:

  • Current usage frequently allows the pronoun "that" to refer to a person, instead of only indicating objects/places/animals/etc.

Here's the thing: who and whom (yes, I realize a lot of people find "whom" to be archaic) are made to refer to people. Sometimes, it's obvious:

  • Who is at the door?

  • Who gave you that bouquet?

  • To whom does this sandwich belong?

I can't imagine anyone saying "What is at the door?" or "What gave you that bouquet?" And "To what does this sandwich belong?" sounds to me like someone at a deli is trying to figure out why there is an extra sandwich after all of the orders have been bagged up.

When it comes to usage within a sentence, though, it can get a little more interesting:

  • "Who is the person that is at the door?" should be: "Who is the person who is at the door?"

  • "Do you know the person that owns that?" should be: "Do you know the person who owns that?"

I realize that this, in the broad scheme of life, is not a life-and-death situation. But it is a person-versus-object situation. And, while it's easy to fall into the "that" usage, it makes people into things with just the change of a word. Which, to me, seems like a bad thing to do.

I can't imagine anyone saying "Who is the person what is at the door?" (Can you?) But again, in essence, that's what the "that" in that sentence is doing. It's making a person into an object.

Personally, I don't want to be an object - I'd rather be a person. And, when I'm working on an edit, I do my best to make sure that the people are people throughout, as well. (Unless... you know... it's part of the story where a person becomes an object, but that situation would probably need a whole different set of rules.)

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