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Lexical Leavings

by Tom Gally



I had a chance today to compare the hit-count results of Google Web searches with more rigorous results from a systematically compiled corpus.

The question I wanted to answer was the frequency of the relative pronouns who and that after head nouns that refer to people. The Google hit counts suggest that, while both pronouns are used, who is more common:
"the only people that said"  28
"the only people who said"  115

"the only person that said"  79
"the only person who said"  393

"the first person that came"  691
"the first person who came"  864

"and no man that"  382
"and no man who"  834

"all of the women that"  702
"all of the women who"  2180
The Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English analyzes the same issue based on its corpus and finds the same general result, though with greater nuance:
[I]n the written registers, there is a very strong tendency for a relative clause with a human head noun to use who rather than which or that.... [R]elative clauses with that freely occur with animate heads, especially in conversation. In fact, for many head nouns referring to humans, that is almost as common as who in conversation. (pp. 612-614)
Longman also includes tables of percentages for several patterns.

While Google does not allow searches that distinguish between written and spoken forms, its overall results from the Web as a whole do agree with those for a smaller but more rigorously compiled corpus.
(May 25, 2003)