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January 21st, 2004

24/7 / who vs. that / commas with introductory elements

by Barbara Wallraff

Chris Nelson, of Clifton Park, N.Y., writes, “I cringe every time I read ‘24/7’ used to describe something that is always open or always available. 24/7 = 3.429. Which 3.429 days is the business open? If someone means 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, shouldn’t it be ‘24x7’—that is, 24 times 7?”

If your newspaper can publish your question the way you wrote it—with a slash between “24” and “7”—consider that progress. Just in the past few months the Associated Press has begun to allow slashes in news copy. (Slashes formerly confused some papers’ computers.) The change is so recent that it appears only in the online edition of the AP Stylebook, not the print edition. Online, AP says it’s all right to use slashes in “descriptive phrases such as ‘24/7’ or ‘9/11.’”

No doubt the earlier format for “24/7”—namely, “24-7”—made you unhappy in a different way: 24-7 = 17. But Chris? This is English, not arithmetic. In English, slashes do such things as join alternatives like “he/she” and show in running text where lines break in poetry. And slashes generally aren’t pronounced. So I think you’ll have to agree that “24/7” rolls off the tongue more mellifluously than “24 times 7.” Give up!

Richard Hepworth, of Millinocket, Maine, writes, “Is there a grammatical rule that prohibits the use of ‘that’ in place of ‘who’ when referring to people? It seems to me that everyone refers to people with ‘that.’ Things are ‘that’; people are ‘who.’ Am I correct?”

Well, you’re polite. For example, “Are you the person that borrowed my pen?” is a shade ruder and more impersonal than “Are you the person who borrowed my pen?” But nearly all authorities say that “that” can refer to people. There are even a few set phrases worded that way: for some reason, “Fool that I am!” springs to mind. What’s more, “that” gets you out of trouble in a sentence like this: “Did she say it’s a boycott or a boyfriend that is keeping her busy these days?”

Susan Schneider, of New York City, writes, “Do you use a comma with an introductory phrase such as this: ‘By the time I finished reading the book, I knew the answer to my question.’ Why or why not?”

Nearly all authorities will tell you they’re glad to see that comma in your example. The idea is to make it easy for readers to find the beginning of the main part of the sentence. After a very short introductory phrase, though, a comma is often just an unnecessary obstacle in readers’ way. I mean, what would be the use of a comma in “Very soon I knew the answer to my question”? When you’re about to leave the comma out because the introductory element is short, however, make sure that doing so won’t trip readers up—as in, “By ending the book left me bereft.” That sentence needs a comma after “ending,” please.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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