Pronouns, humans, and dormice

The kinds of things relative pronouns refer to in modern English can be divided roughly as follows:

that – things and people

which – things, but not normally people

who – normally people, not things, sometimes animals or human-like entities (“animate but not human”, says Robert Burchfield; “having an implication of personality”, says the OED)

When it comes to relative pronouns, animals often aren’t accorded the same grammatical status as people. We’re more likely to say The crow that was here than The crow who was here, though of course it varies with the speaker, type of animal, and context.

Dormouse in a house

So I was struck by a line in last week’s Galway Advertiser reporting the recent entry of the dormouse to Ireland’s ecology (we already have the wood mouse and house mouse):

Dormice are woodland animals, who nest in shrubs and hedgerows, particularly those containing hazel (as their name suggests) or brambles.

I haven’t looked into it, but I’d bet that of references to dormice in equivalent contexts, at least 95% would use that or which rather than who.

Not everyone supports this extended use of who, but it is defensible; the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage quotes lines by John Updike (“the hamster who had died”) and Stanley Kauffman (“Tonto is his cat, whom he walks on a leash”) showing its literary acceptability.

Dormice of the world, welcome to Ireland – and to the Grammatical Who Club.

[image source]
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21 Responses to Pronouns, humans, and dormice

  1. Alina says:

    Having learnt English as a foreign language, I was taught to use ‘who’ for people and ‘which’ for objects and animals (‘that’ for both) and have never strayed from this rule.

    Now, as for the two examples mentioned, well, there are exceptions: it is difficult to see your beloved pet as an ‘it’ and use ‘which’. Same would also apply to characters in a book – think of the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, would you use ‘who’ or ‘which’?

  2. chuntuk says:

    But why should the name “dormouse” suggest that they live amongst hazel?

  3. From my observations, it depends on the relationship the writer or speaker has with the animal. The closer the relationship, the more likely the animal will be a “who,” such as with a beloved pet. An animal considered a pest, such as the raccoon that gets into your garbage every week, would be a “which” or “that.”

  4. Barrie says:

    Not only animals. In ‘Men at Arms’, Evelyn Waugh wrote:

    ‘The men-o’-war steamed away to another rendezvous – all save the damaged ships who limped down to dry docks at Simonstown.’

  5. Stan says:

    Alina: That’s not a bad general rule, but yes, there are exceptions. Pets, as you note, are often given who status, as are anthropomorphised animals such as speaking fictional characters, as well as humanoid robots and other such entities sometimes.

    chuntuk: By itself it doesn’t, but if you visit the article I link to you’ll see that the second line introduces “The hazel, or common, dormouse”.

    Erin: Closeness definitely seems to play a significant role. I can imagine the raccoon being a pest for so long that its tormentee ‘promotes’ it to nemesis and perceives (or projects) more human traits in (or onto) it and switches pronouns correspondingly, much as Captain Ahab sometimes accorded the white whale the status of he/him.

    Barrie: That’s an interesting one. By describing the ships “limping” Waugh has already personified them; and of course ships have long been granted the pronoun she. In an earlier post I noted a similar, perhaps stranger, example with whom referring to houses.

  6. richardsmyth says:

    Not quite the same thing, but there’s a charming line from Nabokov in which he says something about grass-cutting in an Alpine meadow “once everyone has safely pupated”. Can’t find the exact quote just now…

  7. richardsmyth says:

    VN also speaks of “dropping in” on a familiar butterfly “in order to see if he has emerged, and if so, how he is doing”…

  8. Gill says:

    Using ‘who’ in this way is anthropomorphism, or anthropomorphisation, as you mention. But I’m wondering how culturally specific it is, and whether, say, desert people who live closely with camels would use ‘who’ like this. The relative pronoun seems more of a conscious choice than simply referring to a pregnant camel as ‘she'; I wonder why.

  9. Pamela says:

    In the arena of animal welfare, I see “who” used increasingly in blogs and newsletters and use it regularly myself when referring to land animals and whales, porpoises, and dolphins. “It” objectifies, and use of it when talking about animals affronts me these days..

  10. Stan says:

    Richard: Thanks for those examples. When describing butterflies and pupating critters in so familiar a manner, I suppose it’s not necessary to believe they have real personality before applying the more personal pronouns, though it is thereby suggested that they do. And few writers were as friendly with butterflies as Nabokov.

    Gill: This is something I’ve been wondering about too, and it came up in conversation on Twitter. The more domesticated or close the animal is to humans, the more likely we are to use who, but then it is generally other qualities that make us get close to them in the first place (mammalian, intelligent, etc.). And of course these relationships vary cross-culturally, and different languages may have different ways of marking such status grammatically. I don’t know if there are studies that look at this.

    Pamela: It’s possible to use it to refer to animals in some contexts and remain fully respectful, but your point about the word objectifying them gets to the heart of the issue. I would certainly support the use of who with cetacea.

  11. Mary D says:

    Animals, at least animals of any size, should be referenced by who, not that. They are sentient beings who, not that, feel pain and pleasure. They aren’t inanimate. Have a look at the book Pleasurable Kingdom by Jonathan Balcombe.

    • Gill says:

      All these comments seem to accept that referring to an animal as ‘he’ or ‘she’ is the same thing as referring to it using the relative pronoun ‘who’. Maybe it is, but to me ‘who’ seems to go further than ‘he’ or ‘she’ – a slightly more conscious decision to emphasise the sentient and human-like quality of an animal. I wouldn’t be able to prove that though!

  12. Stan says:

    Mary: The use of that with animals doesn’t imply disrespect; it’s the oldest general relative pronoun, and may be used to refer to people, too, in Standard English (a usage that appears in Shakespeare and different versions of the Bible, for example). Thanks for the book suggestion – I’ll look out for it.

  13. dainichi says:

    “woodland animals, who”

    Off topic, but I notice that nobody is commenting on the comma, which IMHO shouldn’t be there, since I find the following relative clause restrictive. Or is it that all woodland animals nest in shrubs and hedgerows, particularly those containing hazel or brambles?

  14. Gill says:

    Sorry, I meant that comment to be directly to the main thread, not just Mary D.

  15. Thomas says:

    One thing that my EFL students find very difficult to get used to is that idea that, although “who” and “that” are for people and “which” is for things, “whose” is for both.

  16. Stan says:

    Gill: I think you’re right. He and she can be used, and often are, once we know an animal’s gender but without necessarily implying much beyond that. We don’t even have to know the gender: I notice people often default to he when referring to, say, a dog they met while walking, which may be a legacy of the pronoun’s generic history. Who, as you say, seems to go further along the line of imputing sentience or personality.

    dainichi: Strictly speaking you’re right. I did notice the intrusive comma, but decided to ignore it for the purposes of this post; I felt the writer’s intended meaning was clear (since the alternative reading was immediately dismissable on the grounds of fact), and the mark was presumably meant to be prosodic rather than grammatical. But I agree, it shouldn’t be there.

    Thomas: It’s an asymmetry that’s unhelpful to learners. You’ve probably looked into the history of relative pronouns, but back when English had þæt there was a corresponding possessive þæs. It may help students to know why English has the system it does (or it might just prove confusing). For more on this, see my post on whose and thats.

  17. […] Like many other elements of English usage, flexibility in relation to subjunctives and relative pronouns is well documented – and while irregardless cannot be considered standard usage, it has been […]

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