Who and That

Here’s the rule: “Who” refers to people, “that” refers to everything else. So you say,

The person who sits next to me stinks.


The person that sits next to me stinks.

Okay, maybe you shouldn’t say either sentence, but you get the idea.

I ran into an exception that works. Maybe we could call this personification. After all, aren’t dogs really people?

Besides, Mike Peterson, of Comic Strip of the Day is a dog person, so maybe that’s a good excuse, too.

PS—Unrelated bonus article: I don’t do politics here, but this appeared yesterday in The Washington Post and it’s about an English teacher correcting someone’s writing. I guess I gotta be proud.


Do the Math!

Ever the editor, this math goof from The Buckets jumped out at me. You know what the percentage should be, right?

I guess the writing lesson is when you proofread, check the math, too.

About the Only Time I Use “It”

A common way to write poorly is to use “it” as the subject of a sentence when you decide you’d have to think too hard to come up with a real subject. For example, I could have written, “…when you decide it’s too hard…”

This use of “it” is called a false subject (or dummy pronoun in the comic).

You have to work harder, but your sentences will be clearer and have more punch if you avoid that two-letter monstrosity. (I should add that “there is” is just as bad.)

Of course, I have an exception. You may use “it” when you reference the weather. Hence this XKCD comic:

Hi, I'm your new meteorologist and a former software developer. Hey, when we say 12pm, does that mean the hour from 12pm to 1pm, or the hour centered on 12pm? Or is it a snapshot at 12:00 exactly? Because our 24-hour forecast has midnight at both ends, and I'm worried we have an off-by-one error.

I confess that I sometimes wonder what the domain of that percentage refers to, myself.

A Swearing Quickie

I don’t do it, and I’ve written about it a time or two, but it’s been a while, and I kind of like this Adult Children comic on the subject.

A sequence of random punctuation to denote swearing is called a grawlix, by the way. The jagged edges on the speech bubble is a nice touch, too.

Don’t Use “As” When You Mean “Because”

Yes, “as” is shorter than “because, and it’s even shorter then “since,” and I generally recommend the shorter word when you write technical material, but in this case, don’t! Here’s a bad sentence:

Melorheostosis is one of the most notorious diseases as the reason for its occurrence was a mystery.

“As” means something like “at the same time,” or “while.” But the intended meaning here is “because.”

So use “because”! Use the clearest words to say what you mean.

PS—Here’s an unrelated sentence where the writer gets it right:

 It was dubbed dark matter because it does not emit light, but it is also mysterious: it is not composed of atoms or their usual constituents like electrons and protons.

Isn’t that better? Less pretentious.

A Tricky Grammar Construction

Regular readers (all three of you) know that I mention “whom” a lot. —Because a lot of people get it wrong, harrumpf.

Today I offer a vote against “whom”!

Review: Use “whom” when you have an object. Think of the stuffy

To whom it may concern

That’s correct. “Whom” is the object of the preposition.

And you use “who” when you have a subject. I remember my mom saying


I won’t go into details about the event, but her grammar was correct. “Who” is the subject.

Now for something tricky. First, the rule:

When you parse (analyse) a sentence, go from the inside out.

Here’s the tricky sentence, from Bloomberg:

No one said no to JPMorgan, or to whomever at Palantir volunteered to help Cambridge Analytica—or to another organization keenly interested in state-of-the-art data science, the Los Angeles Police Department.

(Whom, whomever, same thing.) “Whomever” comes after “to,” so it’s an object, right? No!

The rule, remember,  is to work from the inside out, and “whomever” is actually the subject of the  clause “x at Palantir volunteered…”

The whole noun clause is the object of “to,” and “whoever” is the proper subject of the clause. It’s “whoever volunteered.”

Pat yourself on the back if you got that. This is the kind of construction that separates the men from the boys. Or maybe I should say the professionals from the amateurs.

A Mistake I Don’t See Often

Using an apostrophe in “its” to show possessive is bad, and fairly common in the illiterate set. But at least they generally put the apostrophe inside, um, in The Barn. Like this. First panel. :

Makes me cringe to see that. At least he has the excuse of being a lot of bull (sorry). And it’s photon, not proton, but I digress.

Now when you have the possessive form on a noun that ends in “s,” (such as many plurals) the apostrophe goes after the “s.” You know that, right? Like this:

Both teams’ uniforms were blue.

Okay. So here’s the goof I hardly ever see:

It’s in the last panel, an apostrophe after the “s” in “its”! For shame! —I think maybe the cartoonist wasn’t fully awake. He used “A” instead of “I” in the second panel.

PS—This isn’t even particularly humorous, but it’s on topic:

PPS—and while we’re on this topic, here’s another guy getting it wrong.

Another Example of Linguistic Change

For a long time, the plural of “medium” meaning a means of communication was “media.” So you might ask, “What medium do you as a painter prefer?” And the answer might be, “My favorite media are tempera and watercolors.” And then TV followed on the footsteps of radio and newspapers, giving us three major media for public communication, and we called them “the mass media.”

Lazy creatures that we humans are, pretty soon it became “the media.” But we curmudgeonly types continued to complain that the word had more meanings than just newspapers, radio, and TV.

Well, it looks like we’re losing the battle. Here’s National Public Radio, in writing:

Pulitzer judges whittled their winning group from a vast number of possibilities, and the works they’ve chosen represent a vast array of styles, mediums, and much more.

I guess the plural of “medium” is going to be “mediums.”

Getting “Only” Right

Bruce Schneier is a cybersecurity and cryptography guru. (They say he’s so good he can decode alphabet soup.) I happen to be a regular reader of his Crypto-gram newsletter, and here’s a quote from the April 2018 edition:

It’s routine for US police to unlock iPhones with the fingerprints of dead people. It seems only to work with recently dead people.

Many (maybe most) people put the word “only” at the very beginning of the phrase or clause that it belongs with. The trouble is that adjectives (of which “only” is one) should go right next to the word they refer to. If he had written this incorrectly and said

It only seems to work with recently dead people.

Then “only” would be modifying “seems,” an entirely different meaning.

So watch where you put your onlys.