Monday, November 12, 2012

Monday Madness: Objects vs Humans

Since we all love Mondays and we all love Grammar and the minutes of writing, Mondays are hereafter dedicated to things we'd rather leave in the dark. Might as well start the week with a kick in the pants. I'll bring to you the mistakes I see all the time as an agent (or just a concerned English Major) and things I think writers should just know. Tips will range from first-grade knowledge of the English language, to Master's Degree.

Quick shout out to Gina who mentioned this in the comments last week. It was on my list of things to discuss, so I moved it up because it is a very important thing for writers to be aware of. :)


Which of the following sentences are correct?
  1. Roger is a serial killer that kills only bad people.
  2. Rapists, murderers, and drugs dealers are all people who deserve to die.
  3. The justice system is an outdated system who doesn't always work.
  4. Sometimes we need to resort to new measures that keep our streets safe.
 Two and four are both correct; one and three are incorrect.

When referring to a person, you have to use "who". The subject of sentence 1 is "Roger", and Roger is a person--not a "that", so the correct sentence would read, "Roger is a serial killer who kills only bad people". Likewise, in sentence 2, "rapists, murderers, and drug dealers" are people, so they also get the human treatment of "who".

Don't agree? Consider the following (I'm borrowing from Gina because it is a very good example): "I like girls who aren't obsessed with themselves." Would you argue that "girls" is actually an object? Well, I sure hope not!

Let's beat a dead horse, shall we? As long as it's one that doesn't stink up the place!

When referring to an object, use "that." In sentence 3, the subject is "justice system," which of course is an object. The correct sentence would read, "The justice system is an outdated system that doesn't always work." And in sentence 4, the subject is question is "measures," also an object.

You might notice I avoided using "pronouns" and "possessive" and all that technical jargon. Bleh. My job isn't to scare you off. In this instance, it's very easy to remember: human or non-human.

It might get fishy if we start talking about zombies though... Human? Non-human?

I cut off the head of the zombie that tried to eat my flesh.
I shot a hole in the head of the zombie who was chomping on my best friend.

I think in this case, it depends whether you or your protagonist is sympathetic towards zombies. Likewise, I'd probably refer to my dog as a "who" but refer to a random wildebeest as a "that."

It's all about context. And knowing the rules before you can break them. As Grammar Girl says here, you might talk about your evil step mother, "the woman that married my father" if you really don't like her, whereas you'd talk about your "sweet mother who divorced my father."

Agents won't immediately write you off for mistakes of this caliber, but if we see them constantly, in every paragraph, we start suspecting a lazy writer that didn't bother to learn their grammar manners (see what I did there?!).

Happy writing!


Eric Steinberg said...

How do you feel about sentence ending propositions? This is one I've been thinking a lot about since MS Word keeps trying to fix mine.

Lori M. Lee said...

Yes to all this! Sadly, I was the only student in my literature class who understood what was curious about the title "The Ship Who Sang" by Anne McCaffrey.

Kate Larkindale said...

Here's a similar one.... Do you refer to a band or a crowd (multiple people) as a single entity or multiple entities? I've always used the plural, but someone said a crowd is singular....

Mark Murata said...

I'll sometimes substitute "which" for "that" for the sake of variety, but not often, since it sounds a little different and might jump out from the text.

Jason Nelson said...

First zombies for passive voice detection, now zombies for who versus that. The undead can be quite helpful at times.