I was summoned. The EM wanted to see me. I knew what it was: my dress code. Well, I did get Madonna’s cone bustier cheap on eBay—I was so very sorry about the EM’s eye. Or perhaps it was my body-piercing. Look, I found this dinky little stud with the initials ‘EM’ on it. Okay, perhaps the tongue wasn’t the best place for it, but you can’t dithcwiminite againtht thomeone jutht becauthe they have a sthpeeth impediment. Oh, I know…it was the tattoo. Come on, the tattooist was 93 and a bit deaf. How was I to know he’d misunderstood ‘Indies R Us’? I did tell him Indies started with an ‘I’ not a ‘U’….anyway, it was a bogof and the tattoo on my—oh, never mind.
Anyway I was a Very Worried Minion, and I was trepidating (is it only me that thinks trepidation should have its own verb?). I slunk into the EM’s bunker and there he was. Sitting with his head resting limply in his four hands. He’d written ‘Help’ with all the red M&Ms and was sucking the others up with a straw and pea-shooting them at his statuette of Popeye: I think he was trying to get them into his pipe. He was whimpering pathetically.
“Cathy, I’m confused, I’m nonplussed, I’m addled, I’m perplexed, I’m puzzled, I’m baffled and befuddled, I’m confounded, I’m flustered, I’m…”
Oh no. Oh no, no, no, no, NO. It was worse than I thought. He’d swallowed the thesaurus.
“Help me, Cathy,” he continued after I’d wiped the dribble off his chin. I left him to digest, with Mr Pish sitting on his lap, rather worryingly scratching the EM’s ear, and I tried to make sense of his dilemma…
He was addled by two things—that/which/who, firstly.
OK. Simply. Let’s start with that and who. Formerly, the rule of thumb was ‘that’ for an object and ‘who’ for a person. These days they are interchangeable. So you can have:
‘The lady that was wearing the red coat was a tour guide.’ It could equally be
‘The lady, who was wearing the red coat, was a tour guide.’
However, if you are in any doubt at all, always use ‘who’ for a person and ‘that’ for an object, especially in formal writing. There is a slightly woolly area: pets/animals. If you are referring to a cat or a dog, then ‘that’ is applicable; but if you are talking about a beloved pet with a name, you may want, because we adore our pets, to use ‘who’.
“My dog, Toby, who died earlier this year, was 14 years old.”
And this leads us nicely to the that/which/who in restrictive and non-restrictive clauses. A restrictive clause is one that can’t be omitted from a sentence as it is essential to the meaning of it. A non-restrictive clause is one that can be omitted without altering the meaning of the sentence and is therefore preceded and followed by a comma. Non-restrictive clauses can be introduced by who/which/whose.
“The book that was written by Chris James has reached Amazon’s top 100.” (‘that was written by Chris James’ is restrictive: it cannot be extracted to leave a sentence that makes real sense).
“Chris James has written a book, which is called Class Action, and it’s now topping the best-sellers’ charts.” (‘which is called Class Action’ could be omitted and is therefore a non-restrictive clause).
The EM’s second panic was over subject-verb agreement, eg:
“I could see someone hiding in the bushes, but I didn’t know who they were.”
Technically, ‘someone’ is singular and the sentence should read ‘…but I didn’t know who he was’. Of course, you don’t know if that someone is male or female, so even more precisely, the sentence should read, ‘…but I didn’t know who he/she was’. How clunky is that, though?
You couldn’t possibly end up with a sentence like:
“I know someone who wrote a really good book. I wrote to him/her and told him/her that if he/she ever wanted me to review it for him/her, I would gladly do so.”
Not good, eh? Ungrammatically correct, but much more acceptable would be:
“I know someone who wrote a really good book. I wrote to them and told them that if they ever wanted me to review it for them, I would gladly do so.”
It grates a little because it isn’t technically correct, so my advice would be to restrict this anomaly to dialogue and find alternative ways to construct the sentence to avoid the issue. The trouble is everyone/anyone/someone feels plural, but they are not.
“I know someone who wrote a really good book. I wrote to the author and said I would be very happy to review it any time.” gets round the issue!
I mopped the EM’s fevered brow, zipped up his Tinky Winky suit, and left him with his headless teddy under one arm (don’t ask: it was a rueful day—he couldn’t spell ‘annihilate’) and on page three of his colouring book.
“Thank you,” he said. “Grazie. Grazias. Merci. Danke. Efharisto. Takk. Spasibo. Dziękuję. Mahalo.” He’d devoured the phrasebook for dessert.
Ah well, it could have been worse, he could have swallowed 50 Shades of …