Apparently You’re a Jar of Jam, or a Jelly Donut

I’ve recently noticed many writers referring to people as objects. They might write, for instance, “Mary is a person that loves food.” instead of, “Mary is a person who loves food.” And while my tiny bit of research did turn up the fact that it’s technically acceptable to use this form in some cases, I am someone who has other thoughts about it.

(Before I go any further, I’d also like to narrow the scope of my musing to those who have had the luxury of access to education and know better, but still choose nonstandard grammatical forms.)

Are those who use the word “that” to refer to other people unconsciously objectifying them? And if so, is there something driving a change in written and spoken language, or is it a usage style that’s always been there?

When overloaded with information and expectation, do we shut down our ability to connect with other humans as a defensive mechanism and refer to everyone outside our immediate tribe as objects? Is this a behavioral change represented in our language by using that instead of who, or less instead of fewer when referring to other humans? Am I totally over thinking something that might better be chalked up to simple ignorance, or laziness, or linguistic drift? Possibly.

I wonder for a few reasons, though.

One, it feels bad and it sounds bad. I physically feel the spoken and written language—it’s a symphony that plays in my head and sudden shifts in the linguistic melody are immediately obvious. Hearing someone say, “Josh is someone that specializes in food science.” sounds disrespectful to Josh, and it feels bad—it sounds like a flat note in a solo during the hushed moment of a live concert. Ouch.

But more important than just sounding bad, poor usage and grammar interrupts the flow of thought from the writer to me. It breaks the process of communication for me and I stop paying attention to what the writer was trying to say and start judging him by how he’s awkwardly saying it.

But I’ve been accused of being overly sensitive to language and I understand if I’m alone out here.

I don’t want to be a pedant, or prescriptivist, and I will never correct anyone (unless asked specifically for assistance) since other people’s choices are none of my business and I’m still learning too. But I notice this a lot lately and it bugs me and I wonder about the way things seem to be changing.

I always ask myself whether any change is a useful improvement, or a step backwards that hurts us all. In this case, regarding a fundamental change in our language, does it help or damage our ability to communicate?

I wonder if some recent linguistic changes correlate with the rise of instant, global, personal publishing, AKA the Internet. But I suspect, rather than being a cause, the Internet is just revealing something that has been going on for a long time. We just never had the ability to see it live, writhing in the wild, as it were. (Notice I didn’t say, something who. Wouldn’t that sound silly and broke-ass?)

I’ve also noticed other nonstandard usage oddities on the rise—like the improper use of a and an, or (here’s another objectifying example) references to less people instead of fewer people and saying amount of people instead of number of people.

You wouldn’t put fewer salt on your fries, that’s obviously ridiculous sounding. But it sounds equally bad to hear someone say, “…less people signed up for my webinar than I expected.”

I think it’s disrespectful to the people you’re talking about. You apparently think of people as an uncountable mass that you could pour from one container into another, like honey, or sand—“there’s just so much people out there! How much people are you expecting for your holiday dinner?” Ouch.

Could this be a behavioral adaptation based on our supposed inability to handle more than 150 humans in our personal tribe and is it showing up in our language? Or is it just not knowing any better, or not caring?

If this possible objectification issue is about linguistic laziness, then why don’t we care? Why the drift toward objectification?

Maybe it’s about the pressure to move too fast and the fear of “wasting” a few extra seconds to get it right by looking it up; a few extra seconds which, when taken just a few times would allow you to learn the rule and get it right the first time without looking it up forever after.

I don’t know. But the more I hear it, the more it breaks my ability to read that kind of writing and the more I wonder what’s wrong with the writer.

The part of this that bothers me most is the idea that, now that we have instant access to more knowledge than at any previous time in human history, we fail more than ever to question the possibility, or even care, that we might have made a mistake. It’s really not that hard to look it up before hitting the publish button.

Maybe I’ll speak to a linguistic anthropologist and get back to you on this one.