I encountered more blogosphere bellyaching about grammar and usage this week — some of it right, some of it wrong, all of it interesting. For example, one blogger was complaining about people using “that” instead of “who” or “whom” when referring to a person, as in “there’s the man that offered me a job.” When used in this way, “that” is called a relative pronoun, an exclusive group that includes just “that,” “who”/“whom” and “which.”
Relative pronouns have a specific job: They introduce things called relative clauses. Relative clauses “post-modify” nouns. That is, they come after a noun and offer further information to describe or identify it. For example, in the sentence, “There’s the man,” we don’t have much information about the man in question. But when we add, “who offered you a job,” it narrows down or describes which man we’re talking about.
Yes, “that,” “who” and “whom” are also relative pronouns and work the same way. The difference is “who” clearly refers to people. “Which,” on the other hand, never refers to people. So it’s clear why some say “that” should be reserved for inanimate things only. It’s logical, clear and elegant. It’s just not true.