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

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

Mignon Fogarty
Episode #350

“Whose” for Inanimate Objects

Finally, we have the strange case where we use a form of “who” when we’re talking about inanimate objects: “whose.” Since modern English doesn’t have a separate possessive pronoun for inanimate objects, we use “whose” for both people and things. We can talk about the man whose legs were broken and the table whose legs were broken. Both are fine.

Occasionally, people think or have been taught that they can’t use “whose” for objects, but the style guides are clear that it’s fine. In fact, Merriam-Webster says, “The notion that ‘whose’ may not properly be used of anything except persons is a superstition.”

If it bothers you though, you can always rewrite the sentence. “The table whose legs were broken” can become something like “the table with the broken legs” or “the table that had broken legs.”

As always when we talk about myths and superstitions, I want you to know the facts, but it’s also important to remember that there are people out there who believe the myths and superstitions. If you want to play it safe, you can stick to the fake rules, but I want you to know why you’re doing it and to not spread myths yourself.


1. Garner, B. “Who,” Garner’s Modern American Usage, 3rd edition. Oxford University Press. 2009. p.862.

2.  Garner, B. “That,” Garner’s Modern American Usage, third edition. Oxford University Press. 2009. p. 808.

3. “Relative pronouns defined,” Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edition. University of Chicago. Section 5.54. 2010.

4. Burchfield, R.W., ed. “That,” The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, 3rd edition. Oxford University Press. 1996. p.773.

5 “that,” Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, Incorporated. 1994. p. 896.

6. Christian, D., Jacobsen, S., and Minthorn, D., eds. “animals,” The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law, 2012 edition. http://www.apstylebook.com/online/?do=entry&id=175&src=AE (accessed January 3, 2013).

7. Krupa, T. “Who Versus That”, APA Style Blog, June 28, 2012. http://blog.apastyle.org/apastyle/2012/06/who-versus-that.html (accessed January 3, 2013)

8.  “whose,” Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, Incorporated. 1994. p. 960.

Image: Cute grey kitten, Nicolas Suzor at Wikimedia. CC BY 2.0 Generic.


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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