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Pronouns for People and Animals: "Who" or "That"?

Can a person be a “that,” and is your dog an “it” or a “she”?

By
Mignon Fogarty,
Episode #350

“Who” or “That” for Pets

The Associated Press provides useful guidance about animals, presumably because their writers find themselves writing about pets often enough to need clarification. The AP Stylebook recommends using the pronouns “it” and “that” for animals unless you know the animal’s sex or the animal has a name.

For example, if you were writing about a cat and you didn’t know much about it, you’d write something like “The cat that was stuck in the tree peed on the firefighters.”

If the cat had a name, you’d write something like “Fluffy, the cat who was stuck in the tree, peed on the firefighters.”

If you only knew that it was a female or you were just using pronouns, you’d write something like “The cat who was stuck in the tree meowed at her owner.”

Again, we have style issues to deal with. For example, APA style has different recommendations. They want you to always use “that” when you refer to animals such as cats and rats, not “who.” This is just a guess, but I wonder whether the APA might stick with “that” for animals because, unlike Associated Press writers, APA writers are most often writing about lab animals instead of pets. Regardless, it’s important to remember that even though the general rules are flexible, the rules may be more rigid if you’re following a specific style guide, so be sure to check.

Next: When a Table Can Be a "Who" (Yes, Really)

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About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of the Quick and Dirty Tips network and creator of Grammar Girl, which has been named one of Writer's Digest's 101 best websites for writers multiple times. The Grammar Girl podcast has also won Best Education Podcast multiple times in the Podcast Awards, and Mignon is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame. Mignon is the author of the New York Times best-seller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing" and six other books on writing. She has appeared as a guest on the "Oprah Winfrey Show" and the "Today Show" and has been featured in the New York Times, Business Week, the Washington Post, USA Today, CNN.com, and more. She was previously the chair of media entrepreneurship in the Reynolds School of Journalism in Reno, NV. She hates the phrase "grammar nazi" and loves the word "kerfuffle." She has a B.A. in English from the University of Washington in Seattle and an M.S. in biology from Stanford University. Mignon believes that learning is fun, and the vast rules of grammar are wonderful fodder for lifelong study. 

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