Plashing Vole

Who? That.

You should read Plashing Vole’s post on using ‘that’ and ‘who’ when talking and writing about literature. Does a literary character get lumbered with being a ‘that’ or can they break through to new depths and become a ‘who’?

Plashing Vole explains:

“A Whovian treats characters as real people, a Thaterite analyses them linguistically and celebrates the separation of art and what some people still refer to as ‘real life’.”

Do you have a preference? Plashing Vole prefers ‘who’ and–after brief consideration–I agree it sounds better. I also agree that it’s easier to call a wild animal ‘it’, although I do it for sake of ease and not because it’s a ‘dumb beast’. Unless I went around sexing each creature I wanted to refer to, I’d feel unhappy about giving a 50/50 chance to getting a guess of ‘he’ or ‘she’ correct.

In general English usage, here is what is printed in the Oxford A-Z of English Usage:

“It is sometimes argued that, in defining relative clauses, that should be used for non-human references, while who should be used for human references: a house that overlooks the park but the woman who lives next door. In practice, while it is true to say that who is restricted to human references, the function of that is flexible. It has been used for human and non-human references since at least the 11th century. In standard English it is interchangeable with who in this context.” – p.154 (1st ed.)

Animals are non-human, so ‘it’ seems the way to go. But for literary use? A fictitious character is not human, but does masquerade as one in the mind of the author and reader. At least, that’s the hope.

Perhaps ‘that’ is the easy way out. But when enough people are frustrated by its use, it’s not an easy way out at all. Interchangeable or not, a character that/who is real in terms of what you’re studying is operating in a complicated place.

Given all the potential trouble here, surely we could grace them as a ‘who’…

Everyone Needs To Stop Doing This

Plashing Vole tweeted:

“As the Dissertation God for one of my subjects, the words ‘everyone’ and ‘everything’ are now banned due to unthinking abuse.” [Source]

Apparently, some dissertations that had been submitted for marking contained this type of saying:

  • “Everyone is on Twitter.”
  • “Everyone knows X.”

It’s best to leave these sayings behind. Here’s why:

Crowd (photo by Redfishingboat (Mick O))

“It was amazing. Everyone was there.” – No. Not everyone. (photo by redfishingboat (Mick O))

Everyone is on Twitter

No. Not everyone. You know that really. It’s just a way of saying how popular Twitter seems to be. Surely everyone is using Twitter? But academia needs to be pedantic. Your coursework is not the time for casual remarks.

This isn’t the same as stating information that is generally regarded to be the case without need to explain further. More on that below.

To make a point, you need a reference. Twitter statistics are hard to come by in any up to date and accurate measure, especially in academic papers and textbooks. However, go to the source and you can make a good start.

Twitter’s own Twitter account posted on 18 December 2012 that there are more than 200 million active users per month. They give no further evidence, so it isn’t definitive (even if they say so themselves), but it is a good start if you want to talk about how many people use the service.

Similarly, if Twitter announced that everyone was using Twitter, you could reference that and find examples of people who do not use the service. That’s what research is all about…Although I’m pretty sure Twitter aren’t about to say that the entire human population on earth is now using Twitter.

Everyone knows X

Some information can be referred to and used without referencing. Usually when there is wide agreement, nothing controversial, and generally understood far beyond academic circles.

In these rare cases, I’m pretty sure the information won’t involve ‘everyone’ or ‘everything’. That’s another clue not to use those words.

If the detail is genuinely accepted and requires no further referencing, you can get rid of “everyone knows” anyway. First, because it’s not literally true (it’s unlikely to be stored in a knowledge bank in the brain at birth), and second, because they are pointless words. If everyone accepts it, why do you need to tell us? After all, you’re telling us what we already know.

But why am I telling you about this? I thought everyone knew not to do it… 😉

There are variations on this. When you start writing things like, “People say…” and “Many researchers note…“, remember that you need to be specific. Give examples. Refer to the researchers. Don’t call them ‘people’ or ‘researchers’ at all. Name them outright and give them pride of place.

Every time you find yourself writing along these lines, you have a way forward. Take the offending remarks and look for a way to reference the information instead. You’ll get a useful footnote in and you’ll show that you’ve looked for the detail. What first looked like a throwaway comment has suddenly become potential for a better mark. Not a bad incentive for dropping ‘everyone’ from the writing.