Do Referent Pronouns Mean Nothing to Donald Trump?

Donald Trump is of no use as an international negotiator, domestic policy architect, or moral leader on any level. All that being said, is it possible that he has any use at all? Maybe. One could compile his first six months’ worth of presidential tweets into one hell of a short book on English usage — a treasure trove of examples of how not to write (or speak).

Today Trump tweeted, “It’s sad that Republicans, even some that were carried over the line on my back, do very little to protect their President.” (Emphasis mine.)

In the universe of linguistic trespasses, this one might not rank as a whopper, but I must say that it irks the shit out of me. I bristle every time I hear talk about the player that scored the winning points or the police officer that wrote the ticket or the Republican pol that was carried over the line. It’s just galling.

There seems to be widespread acceptance, even among sticklers for grammatical and stylistic precision, that the use of that as a referent pronoun is valid even if the antecedent of that (the noun that that refers back to) is a human being. I don’t buy it. It’s lazy, it’s sloppy, and it makes my ears hurt. That Trump uses that this way just confirms what a sham it is.

It’s not so difficult to distinguish between a person and a thing that it would be unreasonable to insist on the use of who or whom as a referent for a person and that as a referent for a thing. If you were to ask somebody who was angry at me what his or her problem was, and then he or she were to point at me and say, “That is my problem,” I would be aghast. The subtle inference would not be lost on me: this clod just dehumanized me by swapping out he for that.

I use such subtle linguistic insults myself. For example, if I hold somebody in contempt, I’ll say that that person is called his or her name — like a piece of furniture or a cat — rather than named his or her name — like a normal human or a dog (see what I did there, cat lovers?); I recently referred to Trump’s new communications director as a “sycophant called Anthony Scarmucci.” So now you know what I think of him.

That’s right: I wouldn’t even refer to one of my dogs as a that — any more than I’d say that one of my dogs is called Campbell and the other is called Laney. Beasts though they might be, they are not contemptible, and therefore ought not be lumped in with every manner of inanimate clutter. One of my dogs, the one who is older, is named Campbell; and my other dog, the one who is younger, is named Laney.

Trump is not so nuanced, so he didn’t mean to use that as an insult; he’s just too lazy to refer to a human antecedent as who or whom. In this case, since he was using that as the subject in a passive-voice construction, he should have used who: “It’s sad that Republicans, even some who were carried over the line on my back, do very little to protect their President.” (Had he made that the object, he should have used whom: “It’s sad that Republicans, even some whom I carried over the line on my back, do very little to protect their President.”)

Sad indeed, but not as sad as the odious substitution of that for who or whom.

-bb