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June 2nd, 2004

Who vs. that / quoting oneself / gender-neutral salutations

by Barbara Wallraff

Richard Hepworth, of Millinocket, Maine, writes: “We used to use the word ‘who’ when referring to people. For example, ‘People who live in glass houses ...’ Now it’s common to use the word ‘that’ in its place: ‘People that live in glass houses.’ I’ve always thought people are not ‘thats’; things are ‘thats.’”

You’re right that it’s poor form to call people by the pronoun “that” — except in one special situation. “That” is the word of choice in a phrase like “People and butterflies and plants that live in glass houses.” The word is not wrong in reference to people, though it’s clumsy in reference to people alone.

While we’re on the subject, the opposite mistake is also common. In “Companies who are headquartered in glass office buildings,” the “who” should be “that” instead.

Myles Hampton, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, writes: “When writing an essay or professional report, is it necessary to cite the author of a quotation when the author is the person writing the essay or report? What are the rules when quoting oneself?”

If it’s customary not to use the first person — that is, never to say “I” or “me” — in the kind of professional writing you do, then quoting yourself is going to be awkward. Writing in which one mentions oneself but isn’t allowed to use the first person is awkward no matter what. Can’t you say “as I wrote in my 2003 end-of-year report” or something like that? If it’s just not done, then “as this author wrote” is the best you can do.

To whom it may concern: Good day!

A few weeks ago I asked readers for advice about how to begin letters to people whose sex you don’t know. Several people suggested “To whom it may concern.” That phrase is certainly traditional. I’ve used it. Lately, though, I’ve found myself agreeing with the writer Calvin Trillin, who once wrote: “As far as I’m concerned, ‘whom’ is a word that was invented to make everyone sound like a butler.” I don’t mean that I’m in favor of “To who it may concern” — ouch! Let’s have some other possibilities, please.
Curt Main, of East Lansing, Mich., responded, “If I’m writing to Fidelity Investments, for instance, I start with ‘Dear Fidelity.’” But David Kratz, of Albany, N.Y., wrote: “While I agree that it’s high time we come up with something not gender-specific, I also think ‘Dear’ is almost always inappropriate. I understand that it’s been the standard for generations, but it really is meaningful only in a personal letter.”
“Dear” has begun striking me strange too — especially now that so much of my correspondence to people who really are dear to me is by e-mail, where I address them “Hi” or “Hello.” But so few old formalities remain standard that I’d be sorry to say goodbye to this one. If I were writing to you, David, I’d still begin my message with “Dear David” or “Dear Mr. Kratz.”
Doris Rand, of Westland, Mich., wrote to say that she uses “Greetings.” And Beth Zimmerman, of Redford, Mich., reported, “I simply start with ‘Good Morning’ or ‘Good Afternoon.’” Or maybe, since who knows when the person is going to read the letter, “Good Day”?

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

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