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.
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.