It’s Not All Relative

It’s Not All Relative

Let’s talk about relative pronouns. The fate of humanity hangs in the balance.

To review: our most common relative pronouns include who/whom, whoever/whomever, whose, that, and which.

Aside: The that versus which distinction is not an issue that threatens our way of life. That said, this question is one I often received when I taught high school English. Years ago, during my first clueless weeks as a twenty-three year-old teacher, an older faculty member engaged me across a cafeteria table about that versus which. As I reached for definitions of restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses, I realized, grammar conversations that arose at my school’s lunch tables, which awkwardly paired senior faculty with novice twenty-three year-olds, were veiled tests of my competence.

For now, let’s stick with relative pronouns. A relative pronoun introduces a relative clause and functions as a modifier for a word, phrase, or idea in the main clause of a sentence. For example:

The teacher who taught me grammar was one of my favorites.

Games that we played at recess included foursquare and basketball.

The word, phrase, or idea a relative pronoun modifies is that pronoun’s antecedent. In the two examples above “teacher” is the antecedent for “who,” and “games” is the antecedent for “that.”

These examples are simple. However, danger looms. Traditional grammar authorities, institutions often noted for their reverence of rigid rules, shrug when giving guidance on when to use who/whom and when to use that. I dusted off the instructional tome of my youth, WARRINER’S ENGLISH GRAMMAR AND COMPOSITION, to find this troubling grammatical hedge:

Remember that the relative pronoun who refers to people only; that refers to either people or things. (emphasis my own)

I know. Didn’t you just argue that the Oxford comma, though important in legal documents, is something we should generally chill out about?  Yes, but the loose distinction between who/whom and that, has far greater implications. There are consequences when we blur the lines between what is human and what is thing.

I’m terrified of the technological singularity. In recent decades, Ray Kurzweil, chief engineer at Google and perhaps our nation’s resident inventor/genius/futurist/computer scientist, has popularized the singularity several of his best selling books. The singularity will theoretically occur when rapid advances in technology yield a computing superintelligence that will spark an explosion of unchecked artificial growth. The results of the singularity are impossible to predict, though there are no shortage of apocalyptic Hollywood hypotheses. Perhaps the most iconic example is the Terminator series, where the singularity involves a self-aware defense system triggering a thermonuclear war. Also prominent in those movies are cyborgs, part human part machine, hybrid beings with both organic and synthetic materials.

Often, singularity prognosticators bend two ways in their forecasting. One, like Terminator, is gloom and doom apocalyptic. The other, a more hopeful future when human and machine merge to increase human capability. To this point, Kurzweil has spoken at length about the possible ways to counteract aging via man machine hybridity (like here, a few weeks ago in a New Yorker piece about using technology to conquer death.)

My singularity fears were fully formed by the time I was a high school English teacher in 2012. That year, during the depths of Boston winter, my 9th grade classes embarked on what I referred to as, Grammar Boot Camp, a three week unit I billed as their last formal chance to drill grammar for grammar’s sake.

My grammar unit coincided with the US release of a wistful yet oh so catchy breakup tune from Australian/Belgian singer/songwriter, Gotye. You might remember this borderline NSFW stop motion animation music video. The song exploded, topping the Billboard Hot 100 chart for eight consecutive weeks.

In the chorus, Gotye mourns how completely his former lover has removed herself from his life, “But you didn’t have to cut me off.” In that line, the opening line of the refrain, Gotye jumps an emotional octave from melodic melancholy to wrenching rebuke – a substantial shift in intensity that likely accounts for the song’s popularity.

The chorus also contains the relative pronoun problem. Gotye refers to his former lover, “Now you’re just somebody that I used to know.”

By the letter of grammar law, using “that” to refer to his, presumably, human ex-girlfriend, isn’t incorrect. However, to unequivocally state that he was in a human partnership, he need only have said “Now you’re just somebody whom I used to know” (whom because we need the objective form of the pronoun). Of course, whom would sound too clunky and formal for the emotional crescendo of the song, but the ambiguity of that is no small matter here.

Recent cinematic portrayals of the looming singularity have taken a less abjectly apocalyptic stance than the Terminator franchise. In the last several years, movies like Her and Ex Machina postulate a near future in which artificial intelligence seduces humanity into losing control of its creations. Her — the movie’s title a pronoun reserved for humans — addresses exactly this issue of classification. The “operating system” that Joaquin Phoenix’s melancholic, mustachioed character falls for is not human at all, but an artificial approximation of human consciousness, a disembodied voice that a pronoun like her endows with some type of humanity.

When I asked my 9th grade students, how can we know Gotye isn’t singing about a robot partner? I mostly got the incredulity I deserved. While I taught them that, grammatically, it wasn’t wrong to use that as a relative pronoun with a human antecedent, there are certain style guides that prohibit this usage.

Chief among style guides that champion use of that for only nonhuman entities, is the APA style guide.

And what disciplines adhere to APA style?

Scientific ones. Scholarly journals, places where research on the rapid acceleration of artificial intelligence might be published, recognize the need to distinguish between human and nonhuman, to use who/whom and that for distinct purposes, to resist blurring the line between living breathing human and cold inorganic machine.


Image via YouTube.

Vince Granata is a staff editor at Café Américain and a second-year candidate in American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.


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