Using ‘That’ Instead of ‘Who’ Dehumanizes the Workplace

"Words matter. Precise words matter precisely because humans have the ability — and the responsibility — to raise the bar on how well, how accurately they communicate."
| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

This article appears in print in the November 2018 issue. Click here for a free subscription.

Take that! And please stop its widespread abuse. Only you can prevent the further impersonalization of the workplace by overusing the relative pronoun “that.”

How, exactly, did “that” come to replace “who” in everyday usage? I’m not sure. But I have no doubt teachers must have stopped making a distinction between the two whenever — if ever? — they were teaching pronouns.

And American business has suffered. Greatly. We have ceased being people who think and talk and laugh and have turned instead into inanimate, insensate objects that, through the miracle of grammatical indifference, still manage to think and talk and laugh. How is that possible?

The memos of corporate America are rife with egregious examples. “Anyone that wants to attend the brownbag lunch should contact Jennifer by EOD Tuesday.” “Our consultant Jason will be in the conference room at 10 to meet with employees that have signed up for the 401(k) plan.” “Our goal is to make things easier for people that do business with us.” “The 10 employees that have won a vacation to Barbados are …” “The CEOs that listen well tend to be more effective.”

Really, people! You want to say “who,” not “that.”

Alas, a reverence for good grammar can be a curse. It shackles one to a rules-heavy regimen of noticing when others err and deciding on the fly whether to correct them or let them blunder ahead unenlightened. Most of the time, I let it slide. No one likes a know-it-all. But, as an editor, I improve grammar all the time. It’s my job. As colleagues, supervisors, writers of news releases have foisted “that” upon me when they would have been better off using “who,” I have remained politely silent. Until now. I cannot let the vulgarians win.

Damn the consequences, I say! It’s time to take a stand. Yes, I realize using “that” in the cases I cited earlier is technically not incorrect, according to grammar experts. But careful writers and lovers of precise language tend to agree it is an inelegant usage. Off key, if you will. “Who” confers humanity on the subjects being referred to. “That” does not. And the widespread use of “that” in business communication renders us all a little less human.

I don’t think the world needs any more dehumanization right now. Do you? What’s wrong with ascribing to human beings the humanity they deserve? Words matter. Precise words matter precisely because humans have the ability — and the responsibility — to raise the bar on how well, how accurately they communicate.

Of course, I’ll elicit eye rolls with this column. Some will ask if this is even a battle worth fighting.

Valid question. As language and usage evolve, it becomes difficult, even foolish, for sticklers like me to insist on adherence to a technicality that isn’t even a rule. But we purists give in far too often. Some beliefs are worth fighting for.

One of them is the conviction that corporate America has a duty to recognize the humanity of its workforce. The best way to accomplish that is to do as Amazon did in October when it announced it would raise its minimum wage in the United States to $15 an hour, effective November 1. (The minimum wage should be higher, but that’s another column, another time.)

If you’re already paying your people well, and you’re already providing decent benefits, and you have free beer in the fridge and ping-pong tables on every floor, why not make your language match your largess?

Consideration goes a long way, especially when you use language that acknowledges your people as, well, people. Instead of using relative pronouns that suggest they’re no different from a desk, a chair or a ping-pong table, use words that give them dignity, a sense of worth, a feeling that they belong.

Even if you can’t afford to raise their wages, you might raise their self-esteem. Because words are worth a lot.

JOHN LEVESQUE is the managing editor of Seattle Business magazine. Reach him at john.levesque@tigeroak.com.

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