New York Times writer Frank Bruni in his Sunday column expressed his chagrin at one of my personal irritations: The increasing use of the pronoun "that" in place of who/whom.
According to grammar rules, including The New York Times and Associated Press style books, who/whom should be used in referring to people, that for inanimate objects, animals except for those such as Lassie, and natural things. Yet more and more public figures use "that" indiscriminately.
Bruni must have been thinking about this issue for a long while - he cites the use of "that" instead of "who" among Republican presidential candidates during their debates. Guess the idea's been waiting in his columnist's notebook. He cites President Donald Trump's use of "that," along with his frequent misspellings in his reckless tweets.
I first noticed the "that" phenomenon a few years ago among sports announcers, particularly those broadcasting NFL games. In NFL telecasts, it's never the linebacker who made the tackle, but always the linebacker that made the play.
While acknowledging that "that" is acceptable as a pronoun and has been often used by writers to refer to people, who/whom is "a pronoun that expresses our humanity, our personhood," Bruni says. He sees the prevalence of "that" as a sign of the coming ascendancy of robots in our lives.
I find it part of a decline in an understanding of the language's distinctions. This is often revealed in spelling. Even respected newspapers such as the Times frequently show confusion over proper usage of principle/principal or reign, rein.
These days, Albert and Costello's "who's on first" routine would be changed to "that's on first."