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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
5-minute read
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.

References

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.

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About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show.

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