Do you regularly refer to an animal as a who?
Do you reserve all personal pronouns for humans?
Are you wondering who changed the rule which once specified to use that and it for critters?
Anthropomorphism—the attribution of human characteristics to animals and objects—is nothing new. Going back to the Bible, we find a serpent in the Garden of Eden that/who used its/his powers of persuasion to entice the first man and woman, a.k.a. Adam and Eve, to partake of the forbidden fruit, thereby prompting their eviction from paradise!
(Note how the alternate pronouns for referring to the reptile/Mr. Snake nuance the tone.)
If the written or spoken communication is more formal and not only between friends, using personal pronouns for animals could seem … well … a little batty. (It could just sound silly or childish.) The opposite stance of adhering to it and that could convey coldness. Depending on the circumstance, either approach could trigger an audience to disconnect from the message and messenger.
Should a dog or cat (or some other creature) be a who or a that?
The personal pronoun is appropriate if …
a) the animal has a name:
- Our cat Molly, who was pouting around the house after the kids resumed their school-year activities, has suddenly become mesmerized with all the squirrels in our yard and loves watching them through the window.
The alternative: Our cat Molly, which/that was pouting around the house …
- JoJo, a longtime resident of the gorilla sanctuary, is not one who shies from crowds.
The alternative: JoJo … is not one that shies from crowds.
My professional recommendation: use the personal pronoun when calling the animal by name.
b) an emotional connection to the animal(s) exists or is important to establish:
- The two-year-old poodle mix, an affectionate female who joined our shelter in June, would be a playful, sweet-natured addition to a loving family with children.
The alternative: The two-year-old poodle mix, an affectionate female that joined our shelter …
- While visiting our seaside community, please be respectful towards the turtles who come to nest on our shores.
The alternative: While visiting our seaside community, please respectful towards the turtles that …
- You demonstrated kindheartedness and patience in caring for the baby squirrel who had fallen from the tree.
The alternative: You demonstrated kindheartedness and patience in caring for the baby squirrel that …
- Sharing your concern for the wild horses who live on the island, we have designed a development plan that preserves their sanctuary.
The alternative: Sharing your concern for the wild horses that live on the island …
My professional recommendation: use the personal pronoun if doing so will resonate better with your audience or if it more genuinely reflects your position.
The personal pronoun is inappropriate if …
a) attaching personal attributes serves no logical purpose and/or causes confusion:
- Investigators traced the tainted wheat to rats that had infiltrated a silo on Green Hills Farm.
The alternative: Investigators traced the tainted wheat to rats who …
Who suggests that undesirable people, referred to as rats, were involved!
- Bob took a photo of a snake that was curled up by the barn, and Mary insists it was the same one that caused the colt to shy and kick her.
The alternative: Bob took a photo of a snake who …
- The sheep that were grazing on the western slope have been herded back to the gated pasture.
The alternative: The sheep who were grazing …
- The bear caught a salmon that was large enough to feed both of her cubs.
The alternative: The bear caught a salmon who …
b) referring to animals in a scientific/academic context:
- Scientists have learned about autoimmune diseases from studying the effects of various diets on primates that have inhabited the center for two decades.
The alternative: Scientists have learned about autoimmune diseases from studying the effects of various diets on primates who …
- Scientists have discovered a new species, a marsupial lion that lived 23 million years ago in Australia.
The alternative: Scientist have discovered a new species, a marsupial lion who …
Eliminate any need for iffy pronouns by altering the phrasing:
- Since the kids have resumed their school-year activities, our cat Molly has suddenly become mesmerized with all the squirrels in our yard and loves watching them through the window.
- Sharing your concern for wild horses on the island, we have a development plan that preserves their sanctuary.
Compromise by using pronouns like he and she instead of it; substituting terms like buck and doe for nouns like boy and girl; and taking ownership with possessives like our:
- From her first day at the shelter in June, our two-year-old poodle mix has been an affectionate, playful girl, showing she would be a sweet-natured addition to a loving family with children.
-Your baby squirrel was so fortunate to have someone as patient and caring as you to rescue him.
-While visiting our seaside community, please be respectful of our momma turtles while they nest.
-The mother bear caught a salmon large enough to feed her cubs, two rambunctious boys.
When you’re stuck, begin with the option that comes naturally to you and then compare it with the alternative by writing, reading and saying the words aloud. If you are comfortable with your words, while being mindful of how you want your audience to receive them, the better choice will become apparent.
Finally, organizations and publications often adhere to a particular style guide or set forth their own preferences and rules pertaining to animal references. Be aware of any such stipulations before you let your words run wild. It might be risky to break from the pack in referring to the momma elephant who, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t or shouldn’t!
That’s all for now. My precious dog, who has been waiting patiently, is suddenly begging for some attention!
My best to you,
Sallie W. Boyles, a.k.a. Write Lady
Thoughts or questions? Please contact Sallie Boyles, owner of Write Lady Inc., to exchange ideas about effective communications and gain from professional writing and editing services. Receive monthly tips and insights by subscribing at www.writelady.com.