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When we talk about animals, the words we use matter. But these words reflect our complicated relationship with animals, so our choices aren’t simple ones. Even when we consider the animal widely regarded as our closest friend, the dog, things get complicated. As Alexandra Horowitz writes in Our Dogs, Ourselves (p4),
“The dog’s place in society is steeped in contradiction. We sense their animalism (feeding them bones, taking them outside to pee), yet enforce an ersatz humanness (dressing them up in raincoats, celebrating their birthdays.”
This is apparent in our choice of pronouns to talk about dogs, cats, and other animals. People vary in whether they refer to animals as it and that, or he, she, and who – and, indeed, in whether all or only some animals are accorded particular pronouns. Recently, Aislinn Hunter, best-selling author of The Certainties (and many other books), told me about her approach to writing about animals. She said,
“In this book [The Certainties] I make it a point never to use ‘it’ for an animal, so the animals are either gendered or called by their name or species. I did research on Victorian pet culture during my PhD and many of the questions around animal rights (such as: is an animal a being or a thing?) which were divisive then are still prevalent in the culture now. I believe saying ‘it’ about a being means we see that being as a thing more than a being so I try to avoid this. “
In my own book, Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy, I too wanted to avoid using ‘it’ and refer to dogs by their name or use she, he, and who. To me, it doesn’t feel right to say it about creatures that share our homes. But more broadly, some publications have style guides that require writers to use it for animals, so in some of the pieces we read the writer has had little choice. The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage (5th edition) says,
“Call an animal it, not he or she, unless its sex has been mentioned or it has been personalized with a name. The dog was lost; it howled. Marmaduke was lost; he howled.”
The Merriam-Webster dictionary includes animals under its definition of who. A corpus-analytic study of the use of pronouns to refer to animals, published in Society and Animals, found variations: some dictionaries, newspapers, and style guides allow who for animals while others do not. The use of who seems to relate to closeness with or sympathy for the animal, but does not necessarily grant a status as being like a person or even denote a positive attitude to the animal, according to the analysis. This leads the authors to conclude that “Changes in language… are not enough” to promote compassion for those animals.
A study published in Discourse and Society found surprising similarities in the language used to talk about animals by a vegan and a foxhunter: both use he or she rather than it. But while the vegan preferred to use the pronouns relative to the sex of the animal, for the foxhunter the pronoun was fixed. Tradtionally, the fox is a he while the hare is a she, regardless of the animals’ sex.
In everyday language, our pronoun use may reflect the kind of animal we’re talking about and the closeness of our relationship with them. It’s one thing to think of people’s pets as he or she, but what about the animals that are eaten? Or that make nests under the eaves of our houses or buzz into our homes, unwanted? A study published in Anthrozöos found differences in how people talk about different kinds of animals and even whether some, like insects, are considered to be animals at all in everyday language. When asked specifically which animals are vermin, some people considered all rats and mice to be vermin while others thought only specific ones (e.g. “The mice in the piano are vermin” or “I consider wild rats to be vermin, though tame rats are quite lovely.”) It gets complicated.
Part of the reason is that, for all we want to anthropomorphize the animals we live with, we also want to celebrate their wildness as it connects us to nature. In David Grimm’s book Citizen Canine, which traces our changing relationship with dogs and cats, he says (p283),
“All pets are a bit like feral cats, straddling the line between wild and domestic, person and beast. And because they can cross this boundary, they serve as a lifeline – perhaps the last lifeline – to our animal past. We don’t just need them to comfort and play with us. We need them to remind us of who we are and where we came from. When we turn cats and dogs into people, we lose the animal part of ourselves.”
It makes an interesting thought exercise to ask yourself, how do I refer to animals? Does it differ depending on the kind of animal? And to think not just about pets, but also animals such as deer, hedgehogs, pigs, moose, mice, snakes, swallows, wasps, and whales.
The pronouns we choose reflect in part our beliefs about the use of animals: companionship, food, or connection to nature, for example. They also reflect relationships – the indoors-only pet cat vs the barn cat, the dog that lives inside vs the dog on a chain, and a feral or village cat or dog. Our relationship affects whether or not we give them a name, and that has implications for pronouns too. We can ponder the inconsistencies in our usage but these days, many animal lovers will agree: animals aren’t it. But even though that decision doesn’t necessarily map onto the ways we treat animals, it leaves us with deep philosophical questions about the extent to which we are animals, and animals are us.