Friday, June 23, 2006

"Ode to a Black Man" and the Personal Pronoun

"Ultraglide in Black," by Detroit's very own Dirtbombs, is always close at hand in the Craig Car (2000 Ford Focus -- Michigan pride! Buy American! My next car will be a Toyota!). I was bopping along to the band's version of Philip Lynott's "Ode to a Black Man" the other day when a few lines from the song reminded me of a common error: using the pronoun "that" when referring to a person. Dig these lyrics:

There are people in this town
That try to put me down
They say I don't give a damn
But the people in this town
That try to put me down
Are the people in the town
That could never understand a black man

Those three instances of "that" should actually be "who" because they're referring to people -- people who try to put him down, people who could never understand a black man. The pronoun "that" is used in reference to objects, not people: "There are ice cream trucks in this town/That try to put me down."

Granted, I'm not about to seek out Mick Collins and tell the man how to cover his songs. But I thought it seemed like a fun grammar lesson for the day.


Coming up: MLJ from Cleveland has a hot question about British usage!


Anonymous KMR said...

This is one of my biggest pet peeves. It's a very common mistake in corporate America.

5:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That do you think you are?

11:31 AM  
Anonymous Pat said...


While I am a bit of a SNOOT (see note) myself and am often annoyed by usage errors, I think you go too far when you nitpick rock 'n' roll songs.

You say you're not so much scolding performers and songwriters as using their mistakes to inform your no-doubt SNOOTy readers of proper usage.

But I must wonder whether this type of post is really just a manifestifation of our SNOOTish tendency to point and laugh at those dumber than we are. I mean, certainly readers of TOSC must know this "that v. who" rule by now.

I bring this up not to question that behavior (the pointing and laughing) as a legitimate use of this blog, but to argue that enjoying our collective verbal superiority was the real reason you chose to "correct" a rock song.

That being the case as I see it, I must object.

Are rock stars and, by extension, rock lyrics not in fact charged with breaking the rules or at least disregarding them?

If we can celebrate and romanticize all other forms of rock star excess, certainly we cannot castigate the stars for breaking the rules of language.

Would you have Dylan sing, "It isn't me, Babe," or the Stones belt out, "I can't get any satisfaction"?

I think I've made my point.


Note: SNOOT is a David Foster Wallace acronym for either "Sprachgefuhl Necessitates Our Ongoing Tendance" or "Syntax Nudniks of Our Time."

He defines SNOOT as, "somebody who knows what dysphemism is and doesn't mind letting you know it."

1:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not surprised. If I was Pat, I'd make the same defense, possibly with fewer allcaps.

2:13 PM  
Blogger Craig said...

Pat, you old salt,

Thanks for your post. I love the debate.

I admit to dabbling in SNOOTism just as much as any other copy editor.

But my conscious reason for these pop-culture-inspired posts is just that: inspiration. I've gotten tons of post ideas from listening to songs or reading my coffee mugs. It seems a lot more fun and possibly relevant to our readership to put these issues in a pop-culture context. I'd also argue it makes the conversation more accessible. This is an ubernerdy blog, and I want to reach out to all our nonnerd friends.

I guess, though, I am also making a point: The vernacular is quite different from more formal types of communication. No, I wouldn't want Dylan or the Stones to clean up their language. That would be lame and dull. But it's worth stating that the vernacular should be seen as different from the formal. As a SNOOT, I worry that that distinction is blurring.

3:23 PM  
Anonymous Pat said...


Having borrowed from DFW for my last post, I will now quote another soldier on the front lines of the American English language evolution revolution.

"Cram it with walnuts, ugly." -- Homer Simpson


3:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thin Lizzy rocks!

4:06 PM  
Blogger Craig said...

Me fail English? That's unpossible!

4:24 PM  
Anonymous Pat said...


OK. Here is my more-serious response to your response to my initial reply.

First, though, kudos to you on using "ubernerdy" right in your anti-"uber" colleague's face.

Yeah! In your face, anti-"uber" colleague!

What? What? Who wants some?

But I digress ...

Brass tacks:

I still have a bone to settle when it comes to your use of rock lyrics as examples of poor grammar or usage.

You argue that:

1. Such references make the blog more accessible to our non-nerd (I'm going with the hyphen because of the double-n) friends.

2. They make the blog more fun and relevant.

3. The vernacular should be viewed differently than the formal, a distinction you fear is blurring.

The problem with this line of thinking is that if you concede rock lyrics need not toe the formal line -- indeed, that as part of the vernacular they must necessarily remain separate from the formal (lest your fear of line-blurriness become an outright terror, keeping you awake at night with sweat dripping down your extremely hairy body) -- they cannot be relevant at all to a discussion of formal rules.

In other words, it's silly to use something you have expressly said need not adhere to those rules as an example of rule-breaking.

You're stuck in your creamy-peanut-butter world, complaining that the chunky peanut butter has chunks.

Also, with regard to the accessibility argument -- and, no, I don't even want to begin dissecting the duality inherent in a form of elitism that calls its adherents "nerds" -- I think it's somewhat daft to suggest the cool kids are going to get their rocks off on grammar and usage as soon as nerds start name-dropping the Bangles and Thin Lizzy.

Just my thoughts.

-- Pat

6:08 PM  
Blogger Craig said...

I should clarify: I'm not saying that rock lyricists should improve their grammar. But I like to use rock lyrics to point out that the distinction between vernacular and formal exists.

I'm saying, "This is what the vernacular is, HERE'S the formal."

And in celebration of my one year in L.A., I've gotten a full body wax.

6:17 PM  
Anonymous Pat said...


I'm glad we hashed this out.

I'm hitting a Tigers game, maybe two, with Jon and Adrian this week in Seattle. I'm not making any promises, but you may get a drunk dial.

Your friend,

6:40 PM  
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