Annals of animals which get ‘who’

In a local newspaper some time ago I read about ‘dormice . . . who nest in shrubs and hedgerows’. The grammar of this phrase struck me enough to write a brief post on the different kinds of antecedent for which we use the relative pronouns who, that, and which.

When referring to animals we usually use that or which, reserving who for people, or entities that comprise people. But who may also be used for animate entities with personality or the implication thereof, and this includes non-human animals – even dormice, I was pleased to see.

As the table below shows, who is especially likely to be used with pets, companion animals, or domesticated or very familiar animals. If the creature has been personalized with a name or by establishing its sex, there’s a good chance it will warrant who.

I read another example recently in the very first entry in Paul Anthony Jones’s book Word Drops:

The aardvark is a peculiar African mammal whose equally peculiar double-A name has earned it its prestigious position as the first animal in the dictionary. Spare a thought, then, for its alphabetical next-door neighbours, the aardwolf and aasvogel, who are pipped into second and third place…

Two more appear in Luis Bunuel’s autobiography My Last Breath, translated by Abigail Israel:

At one time or another, we had monkeys, parakeets, falcons, frogs and toads, grass snakes, and a large African lizard who the cook killed with a poker in a moment of terror.

Luis also had a hatbox filled with tiny gray mice whom he allowed us to look at once a day

The second of these is from an article by Bunuel’s sister Conchita that was published in the French magazine Positif and reproduced in My Last Breath. Both pronoun choices can presumably be attributed to the translator. The inconsistency in selecting whom is a little curious too.

For a more thorough treatment of attitudes to the use of who with animals, see Gaëtanelle Gilquin and George M. Jacobs’ paper ‘Elephants Who Marry Mice are Very Unusual: The Use of the Relative Pronoun Who with Nonhuman Animals’ (PDF). It opens with an interesting story about Jane Goodall’s research in Tanzania:

When Goodall submitted her first scientific paper for publication, it was returned to her by the editor to be amended. In every place where she had written (he) or (she) to refer to chimpanzees, the words had been replaced with (it). Similarly, every (who) had been replaced with (which). In an effort to rescue the chimpanzees from “thing-ness” and restore them to “being-ness,” Goodall stubbornly changed the words back.

Gilquin and Jacobs review dictionaries, grammars, style guides and the British National Corpus to examine attitudes towards the usage and to analyse its different motivations and contexts. This table is from their survey of the BNC and shows the degree of familiarity, intelligence, and perhaps other characteristics likely to earn an animal the privilege.

Gaëtanelle Gilquin and George M. Jacobs - animals with relative pronoun who in BNC


Claire Keegan’s short story ‘Men and Women’, from her debut collection Antarctica, has a couple of nice examples:

She watched the sudden, fast shadows of swallows who flew past her window in fleeting pairs, subtracting light from her room, and marvelled how living things could suspend themselves in mid-air.

I sit by the window and keep an eye on the sheep who stare, bewildered, from the car.

Tadpoles in Lorna Sage’s memoir Bad Blood:

And we presented her with gallons of frogspawn which duly turned into tadpoles, which ate each other until there were just a few fat cannibal monsters left, all black belly and no sign of legs, who got poured down the sink.


32 Responses to Annals of animals which get ‘who’

  1. stuartnz says:

    The most generic of all, “animal”, outscores “cat” by nearly 30%? That’s a surprise. Going by the crieria in your third paragraph, I was expecting to see “dog” and “cat” fighting it out for first and second

    • Stan Carey says:

      It’s an interesting difference, Stuart, and may reflect the fact that dogs’ personality seems closer to ours, or that they’re more affectionate towards us, while cats, though familiar, are more distant. To reduce the element of corpus bias I checked others; for example, the 1.4-billion word ukWaC corpus has 496 hits for ‘dog who’ and 417 for ‘cat who’.

      • stuartnz says:

        The results from the larger corpus are more in line with what I’d have expected. It was really the fact that “cat” even lost to “animal” that surprised me most from the initial table.

    • Catbar UK says:

      To me it’s no surprise that the dog tops the charts at a huge majority of 114, with the horse second at 70, and with the cat coming a lowly 35. Dogs – and horses – seem to me to be far better regarded by people than cats are. Maybe this is only my experience but I seem to come across or hear about many cat-dislikers/dog-preferrers. Most people just seem to relate better with dogs and horses, and often find cats off-putting. (Not me, I hasten to add!)

      • Stan Carey says:

        That’s true, Catbar. In my experience most people like dogs, or at worst don’t feel strongly negative about them (except in cases where they fear them, and even then they may nonetheless be well-disposed towards them). But quite a few people, as you say, are really averse to cats. I’m not, but I’ve met plenty who are.

      • Catbar UK says:

        @Stan, May 28 at 8:58am (in case this message ends up at the bottom of the page, instead of next to your reply, Stan).

        Afraid Ive never been a dog-person; being both fastidious and sound-sensitive myself I just adore cats BECAUSE they’re silent, clean, still, contained – the reverse of dogs. I can’t relate to people who dislike cats and adore dogs. And horses scare me because they’re so BIG. To me, dogs and horses are always ‘he’, and cats ‘she’.

      • Susan Beegel says:

        “I am not a friend and I am not a servant. I am the cat who walks by himself, and all places are alike to me.” Kipling I’ll bet we could draw a correlation between our willingness to abuse, neglect, kill, and eat other species and our willingness to “it” them. When it comes to abuse and abandonment, cruelty to cats is far more common than cruelty to dogs, and that’s bad enough. I think the dog/cat pronoun divide reflects that.

      • Catbar UK says:

        Susan Beegel, May 29 at 11:58 am, said:
        “When it comes to abuse and abandonment, cruelty to cats is far more common than cruelty to dogs, and that’s bad enough.”

        Sorry if this is going off-topic but I had to say how much I agree with the above. Sadly, it seems to me that cats are seen as mere ‘vermin’ and therefore who cares if they get abused and tormented. Whereas dogs seem to be universally revered. If any animal is seen as an ‘it’, it’s the cat.

  2. Vinetta Bell says:

    Greetings, Stan! Now that we have pet parents and a lawsuit claiming personhood for two chimps, I expect that the habitual use of who and whom will accompany these perspectives about animals.

  3. thebluebird11 says:

    There are people for whom pets are family. People often adopt pets or other types of animal, like horses, when the animals are born, and spend 15, 20 or more years growing up with them, loving them, caring for them and tending to them when they’re sick…they throw birthday parties and Bar/Bat Mitzvahs for them, hold funerals and memorial services…so a relationship with a pet can be almost like a relationship with a human (sometimes better…did you ever have to deal with a teenager?) I don’t mind including them in my circle and using he, she and who/m. I am not that much of an elitist. Animals are, in many ways, better than humans; there are some that are bigger, stronger or faster; some are better swimmers or better runners; some can fly; some can see, hear or smell better than we can. So why would we not give them the simple courtesy of acknowledging their “animate-ness,” their souls, their place in creation (by God, if you choose to believe that), the fact that there are males and females? They surely have personalities; anyone who has a pet knows that. A table is “it.” An animal is not “it.” I am not militant about this, but for my own use, I choose not to use “it” when referring to an animal I know, or at least an animal whose gender is clear to me.

    • Stan Carey says:

      bluebird: I agree, on the whole. It’s interesting, though, where and why people draw the line. Bacteria are animals, but very few people (even habitual who-users) would grant them who status, or feel that they have personality. With more complex animals, whether domesticated or not, there is no question that they do. As for their place in creation: the Bible’s instructions for us to ‘rule’ animals and have ‘dominion’ over them has always troubled me.

  4. I’ve never thought twice about using “who” and gender pronouns for animals, even ones whose gender isn’t clear to me. Honestly, it sounds kind of odd to call an animal a “that” or a “which.” But I’d never consciously thought about it until I saw this post. It’s interesting.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Not knowing whether an animal is male or female can cause minor awkwardness or uncertainty. If I’m telling someone about a cat I met or a bird I saw, for example, I might reluctantly use it or just guess at she or he. Singular they comes in handy here again!

  5. davidwilliams594123794 says:

    To add something from a rather less sentimental point of view:
    (not that there’s anything wrong with that… hoping html works here – if not just nevermind):

    And just to remind us of the comparative scale:

  6. davidwilliams594123794 says:

    ok, well apparently not. Those were supposed to be google n-grams of the top few A+whos, with A+thats as comparators. Maybe you can get them directly here:

    The last one is to get a baseline for comparison b/w the two:

    • Stan Carey says:

      Thanks, David – Google’s graphs make for an interesting comparison. By the way, img tags should work in comments here, but your html vanished so I’m not sure what went wrong.

  7. John Cowan says:

    Your first example doesn’t really belong here, because whose has always been applicable to both persons and things: it descends from Old English hwæs, the genitive form of both who (originally masculine/feminine) and what (originally neuter). The OED’s first quotation of neuter whose is from the 1384 Wycliffite Bible (Deut. viii. 9): “The loond of oyle and of hony; […] whos stones ben yren, and of the hillis of it ben doluen metallys of brasse”, or in modern spelling “The land of oil and of honey […] whose stones are iron, and of which the hills are delved metals of brass”. The KJV uses the same construction: “a land of oil olive, and honey;[…] whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills thou mayest dig brass.” The NIV avoids it: “a land with […] olive oil and honey […] where the rocks are iron and you can dig copper out of the hills.”

    • Stan Carey says:

      John: If you read the second sentence in my first example you’ll see that it does belong here. I included the sentence before it for context. (I looked at whose vs. thats here, FWIW.)

      • elizdanjou says:

        I found that example particularly interesting *because* it began with “whose,” which is much more often used for non-humans because of the complexity of the alternatives. I wondered whether the “whose” in the first sentence had helped to engender the “who” in the second — whether the writer or editor, consciously or not, was aiming for “fair” treatment of the three animals mentioned (or, less anthropomorphically, simply aiming for more parallel-sounding sentences).

        And also interesting because the aardvark is also referred to as “it,” right beside the “whose,” suggesting that “who” doesn’t necessarily convey complete equation with humans.

      • Stan Carey says:

        It’s an interesting example all right, Elizabeth, and your comment nicely captures why. It strikes me as a reasonable choice for the aardvark, though pluralising the subject is a fair alternative: Aardvarks are a peculiar African mammal whose equally peculiar double-A name has earned them their prestigious position…. Elegant variation is another possibility (…has earned the animal the prestigious position…), though it wouldn’t quite live up to its name in this case. I might ask the author if he can shine any light on the decision to use who.

  8. thanks for posting on this subject, about which i’ve often thought. and proud of Goodall and all those who resist oppressive language in favour of being-ness.

    • Stan Carey says:

      And thank you for your visit and comment, Shellie. I hope Goodall changed the mind of an editor or two on this point!

      • Susan Beegel says:

        Goodall’s revolutionary contribution to the science of animal behavior was to apply the principles of anthropology to the study of social animals. She simply could not have this work at all without her pronouns. Sex mattered. Relationships and hierarchies mattered. Individual personalities mattered. To take her “who” and “he” and “she” would be to erase her science.

      • Stan Carey says:

        Susan: Well, it would certainly have compromised it.

  9. oudeis2005 says:

    This is a great post, dealing with something seemingly trivial, but actually very profound. Have you read Michel Pêcheux? His last book, before he died prematurely in the 1980s, was a long tub-thumping analysis of the ideological significance of the distinction between the describing and defining relative pronoun and the use or not of the article in Modern French. He is not well known outside of France and Brazil, where his legacy has sadly splintered among competing groups.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Thanks, oudeis; I’m glad you enjoyed the post, and I agree that it’s a deceptively complicated subject. I didn’t even begin to get into it in any depth here, but the research by Gilquin and Jacobs that I linked to may serve as a starting point for anyone so inclined. I’m afraid I haven’t read Michel Pêcheux, but his work sounds intriguing.

  10. oudeis2005 says:

    I am currently working on a study of the ‘patronizing’ use of the English Present Continuous in adult-child and teacher-student discourse and the way it shapes power relations and perceptions of the world, a first draft of which I shall soon be posting on my blog.

  11. Chips Mackinolty says:

    For me the most interesting outlier is “eagle”, just a few steps down from “bird”. What is it about eagles??

    • Stan Carey says:

      Chips: This anomaly is largely a result of a single book, William Horwood’s Callanish, which uses who in reference to an eagle on multiple occasions. (It also has some ‘eagle that’s.) When the overall count is so low the possibility of this kind of data contamination is high.

  12. johnwhye415 says:

    Hi Stan, I have always had cats and refer to them with personal pronouns, like who, he or she…I actually prefer the company of my cat to some people I know, and dogs are a close second…You must be an English professor?

    • Stan Carey says:

      Hi John, and welcome to Sentence first. When I had cats I did the same, and still do when I know a cat’s name or whether it’s male or female. I agree, they make fine company; dogs too. I’m not an English professor but I do work with the language as a sub-editor and writer.

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