In this lesson we’re going to look at two more common grammar errors that native English speakers routinely commit. These are the sorts of mistakes that native speakers hear growing up and end up unconsciously repeating. Learn to identify these errors, and make an effort to avoid incorporating them into your own speech and writing.
Using “That” to Refer to People
That is a pronoun that refers to objects, abstract ideas, and whole groups. It should not be used when the antecedent (the noun a pronoun takes the place of) is a person or persons. However, this is exactly what many native speakers do:
Archana is the one that referred me to the English Island in Atlanta.
Because Archana is a person, this sentence should use “who” instead:
Archana is the one who referred me to the English Island in Atlanta.
It’s worth noting that native English speakers rarely confuse “that” and “who” when the antecedent is an inanimate object. In all likelihood, you will never hear a native speaker say something like the following:
The English Island in Atlanta is a tutoring company who specializes in ESL classes.
Virtually any native speaker would be able to identify that you should not use “who” in this situation. He or she would intuitively recognize that “The English Island” is the name of a company and should be treated as an inanimate object:
The English Island in Atlanta is a tutoring company that specializes in ESL classes.
The misuse of “that” to refer to people can happen for a variety of reasons. It might be that a native speaker didn’t pause to consider the type of noun he or she was referencing. It might also be the case that speaker has forgotten or never learned that you cannot use “that” to refer to a person. Furthermore, “that” can be a tempting alternative when a speaker isn’t sure whether the pronoun of a sentence should be “who” or “whom.” As we discussed in our Who vs. Whom English lesson, however, modern American English only requires the use “whom” in a handful of specific circumstances. In situations where you need to choose between “who” and “that,” having to make a further decision between “who” and “whom” is essentially a nonissue.
Overuse of Uncommon Words
Many native English speakers believe that using uncommon or obscure words will make them appear more intelligent and sophisticated. In reality, using an uncommon word when a more common alternative is available simply makes it more difficult for a reader to understand the point that a writer is attempting to communicate. This is especially true in business correspondence, where the goal is communicate ideas clearly and concisely:
The perspicacious salesperson could learn much about a potential customer just by looking at him or her.
There’s no need to use the obscure word “perspicacious” in this sentence when a widely-understood word with the same meaning exists:
The astute salesperson could learn much about a potential customer just by looking at him or her.