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…”)