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Grammar: I need a lyric that won’t drive me crazy…


One of my grammar pet peeves? When song lyrics use incorrect grammar.

Just this morning, I heard a John Cougar (Mellencamp) song* that irritated me so much that I had to loudly sing along, using the correct grammar. (Don’t worry, I was in my car, so I didn’t bother anyone else!)

The song in question:  I Need a Lover.

The incorrect grammar: The use of “that” instead of “who.”

As you can determine from the title, John is singing about how he… “needs a lover.” Great. No problem. But he’s pickier than that, so he gets a little more specific. He needs “a lover that won’t drive him crazy.” And here we run into trouble.

Since John is a human being, I think it’s safe to assume that the lover he’s looking for is also a human being. And when you refer to a human being, the correct word choice is “who” not “that.” So what he’s really requesting is a lover “who won’t drive him crazy.” (And that’s what I sing, every time I hear that song.)

Now, if Mr. Cougar (Mellencamp) was the only person who was making this mistake (note the use of the word “who” back there!), I might be able to let it go. But this is an incredibly common error. So please, take a look at your writing. If you are referring to a person, choose “who,” not “that.”

EXAMPLE: The person who does the best job will win the prize.

EXAMPLE: The table that sits in the corner needs to be dusted.

Ah, but what about those grey areas? What about groups or organizations or really special animals? As the term “grey area” implies, in these cases, there’s no completely right or completely wrong answer. So it’s basically up to you. If you think the thing you’re describing is closer to human than just a thing, you may want to use “who.”

EXAMPLE: My dog, Princess Ferdinanda the Third, is the only one who really knows my true soul.

I’m going to assume that in this case, the dog has taken on almost human qualities to the person saying this, and therefore, I won’t nitpick the use of “who.”

EXAMPLE: The group who/that posts the highest sales will receive a bonus.

I think you can argue either one for this. A group is a thing (so “that”), but in this case is made up of people (so “who”). Pick whichever you like; just be consistent throughout the piece that you’re writing.

So remember: “who” for people, “that” for things.

* Mr. Cougar (Mellencamp) is certainly not the only musician guilty of bad grammar. I think Snow Patrol ought to read my September column on “Lie” vs. “Lay.” (“If I lay here…”)

Rachel is a full-on, hardcore grammar freak. Her favorite punctuation marks are parentheses, em dashes and ellipses. She still loves adverbs, but is trying to wean herself off of them. And she truly believes that it’s okay to split an infinitive. In addition to her grammar obsession, Rachel writes light contemporary romance – occasionally with a paranormal twist – and is published in short fiction.
  1. Where do you stand on animals? I know technically they are “it” not “he/she,” but if I have a character that thinks of them as a person, I use the “he/she.”

  2. Count me in as one of those who is always arguing with copyeditors over the “animal” gray area mentioned above, LOL! I always go with the who/he/she in those instances, and I usually win.

  3. I mention that near the end. If a person considers a pet to be like a person (and many people do!), I am comfortable with using “who” for the pet. (And you have “a character WHO thinks…” 😉 )

  4. You’re incorrect about this. “That” is a perfectly good pronoun to use with persons, and especially in two specific cases: for groups of people, and for cases where the identity of the person is not known. This song uses the latter sense.

    It’s been used in this way for centuries–in fact, “that” as a relative pronoun predates “who”; it’s our oldest relative pronoun. I suggest you check any dictionary (for instance, American Heritage, which I have handy, says: “It is entirely acceptable to write either the man that wanted to talk to you, or the man who wanted to talk to you.”), or any good usage guide (for instance, Fowler or Garner).

    It’s possible that people who come up with this rule are confusing “which” with “that”. While “which” was used historically in regard to persons, that usage died out by the end of the 17th century, and it’s now considered a definite grammatical mistake to use “which” in these cases. But “that”, in reference to persons, has centuries of educated and literary use behind it.

  5. Yes, Bob, the dictionary does allow its use. You are correct. However, if you go to pretty much any grammar site or source, you’ll see that “who” is preferred when referring to humans. It’s a nicety – it sets off people from everything else, making them a little special, which I think is quite nice. And I also suspect that people who use “that” instead of “who” aren’t usually doing it because they know that the American Heritage Dictionary has their back; I think they’re doing it because they don’t know that using “who” is preferred.
    As for that vs. which, I’ve done a column on that issue as well.
    Thanks for the comment! It’s always great to see other people who are passionate about grammar!

  6. Dear Howtowriteshop,
    This question may be a little off-topic, If you don’t leave your house in the black of night to go fishing this summer, you probably won’t be catching any monsters this season. Night fishing is the final frontier in most fisherman’s lives; once you start night fishing you keep night fishing for the rest of your life-the addiction is too great to beat. Many waters are becoming completely over saturated with pleasure boaters and jet skiers, and their pleasure is not fishing, it is creating as much noise as possible. Most fisherman just shake their heads in disgust and walk home dreaming of another lake to fish.

  7. I hate, hate, hate it when lyrics refuse to use the subjunctive: “If I WAS you…” Ow, ow, OW!!! If I WERE you, PLEASE! A lyric is poetry. Unless you’re trying to pass yourself off as a hick, that is!

  8. More rule breaking who/that lyrics:

    Olivia Newton John (from “Grease”): “You’re the one that I want … ooo, ooo, oooo”
    Katy Perry: “The One That Got Away”

    Here’s an easy way to remember when to use the subjective: Use it to mean something that is contrary to fact. Fiddler on the Roof: “If I were a rich man …” (but I’m not)

  9. Yeah, that Katy Perry song drives me over the edge! :)
    GREAT idea re: the Fiddler song! Perfect!!


  1. Monday Messenger – Week of July 16 « Ruminating in the Desert - [...] As a bonus grammar link, check out HWS' post by Rachel Berens-VanHeest on the correct usage of "Who vs. …

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