A Person Who

am-a-simple-person-who-hides-a-thousand-feelings-behind-the-happiest-dGxksS-quoteI heard Barbra Streisand the other day, being interviewed on the radio, describe herself as “a person who likes to live in the moment.” The phrasing made me think of my students, whom I’ll see in two short weeks. We always start our small classes with introductions, and I can no longer count the times I’ve heard, “I’m a person who. … ” To my ear, there’s little difference in basic meaning between I’m a person who likes and I like. Rhetorically, though, the emphasis is different. I decided to dig around a little for what others had made of what I sensed was a growing habit.

Sure enough, Google’s Ngram viewer shows a 15-fold increase in I’m a person who from 1958 to 1991, with the expression holding its own since then. Examples from the books they survey include:

“I’m a person who feels a oneness with the earth.” —Don Diebel, The Complete Guide to Meeting Women, 1991

“I’m not at all proud of it, but I’m a person who has, from time to time, talked behind the backs of my own family members.” —Richard Carlson, Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff With Your Family, 1998

“I’m not a killer, but I’m a person who believes in life and a person who believes in family and a person who believes in love.” —Elaine Latzman Moon, Untold Tales, Unsung Heroes: An Oral History of Detroit’s African American Community, 1994

“I’m a person who has no concept of self-protection.” —Michael S. Duke, Worlds of Modern Chinese Fiction, 1991

“I’m a person who doesn’t mind having enemies.” —Barbara Rockwell, Boiling Frogs: Intel vs. the Village, 2005

You get the idea. I don’t find any grammarians specifically tut-tutting over this convoluted way of talking, nor should they. (More on grammar in a minute.) But the rise in the expression, I suspect, is due to an offloading of individual agency that correlates to social media. More and more, we share — our cat pictures, the deaths in our family, our political views, our indigestion. Ads find their way back to us based on the preferences we exhibit online. We become, in a sense, a collection of our preferences and beliefs, our commitments and our phobias. Each of those expressions binds us to others who feel, believe, have X concept, don’t mind Y. We become walking integers: persons who write things down, persons who have gone on blind dates, and so on. It’s almost as if we’re anticipating the response of Me too! I’m that same person! When Tim Armstrong of AOL says, “I’m a person who likes to tackle challenges,” he’s saying not just that he likes to tackle challenges, but also that he expects kinship with others who like to tackle them. He’s also setting the quality aside in a way; it belongs to the person-who-is-Tim-Armstrong, a person being created rhetorically as he shapes the sentence.

It’s this setting-aside, I think, not the wordiness, that bothers me about I am a person who. Interestingly, as I poked around looking for instances and possibly criticisms of the expression, I ran across a sensible question from an English-language learner. “Is it correct,” this native Spanish speaker asked, “’I’m a person who enjoys what I do’? Or ‘I’m a person who enjoys what he does’?

Answers varied. “In most instances of spoken English,” one respondent wrote, “you would probably hear: I’m a person who enjoys what they do.” Another wrote, “Both would be acceptable, but ‘what he does’ is more idiomatic.” Finally, an English speaker pointed out, “‘What (s)he does’ is probably the norm. But this only applies to the singular; in the plural you must say ‘we are people who enjoy what we do.’” The difference, wherein the construction in the singular uses different pronouns in the main clause and the final noun clause but the plural construction uses the same pronoun, is no doubt due to the consistency in verb form of the adjectival and noun clauses. That is, we do uses the same plural verb case as Who enjoy, so it’s easy to keep the same pronoun subject. I do, by contrast, doesn’t match up with Who enjoys, and the tendency is to find the pronoun (He does) that matches third-person singular. (I realize that the first suggestion, employing singular “they, doesn’t fit this pattern, but I still think the pattern governs the construction as a whole.)

I’m belaboring this little point because the huge shift in usage seems to be primarily for first-person singular, I’m a person who rather than She’s a person who and other forms. And the shift to third person in the last clause — what he does — seems to me to fit with this tendency to be claiming the behavior, separating oneself from it, and establishing membership in an amorphous club of those-who-do-X, all at the same time. Perhaps that’s why the Donald, in an August 11 interview, managed to say with a straight face, “I’m a person who doesn’t like insulting people.” Even he, winner of the greatest number of Pinocchios of all time, might find “I don’t like insulting people” too much of a stretch.

Or maybe he’s a person for whom no stretch is too much.

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