In a past post, we explored the guidelines for using the gendered pronouns he or she with animals rather than the neutral pronoun it. Today, we’re going to look at relative pronouns for animals, specifically who, that, and which.
In general, the relative pronoun who applies to people, while that and which apply to objects. So, should you write “The cat who sits on the porch every morning has bright, green eyes”? Or, should you write “The cat that sits on the porch every morning has bright, green eyes”?
Much like the pronoun it, the answer depends on your preferred style guide. We’re going to look at the recommendations provided by three of our primary style guides:
- The Associated Press Stylebook (AP style)
- Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA style)
- The Chicago Manual of Style (Chicago style)
And then we’re going to let a dictionary swoop in with an alternative for all the animal lovers who don’t like the recommendations provided by the style guides.
Relative Pronouns for Animals — AP Style
The Associated Press Stylebook (AP style) says that animals with names should be referred to as who, while animals without names should be referred to as that or which.1
Sir Snuffles, the terrier who saved the drowning baby, was given an award for bravery.
The bald eagles that arrive every winter always draw a crowd.
The turtle, which lives in the backyard, enjoys sunbathing on the patio.
Relative Pronouns for Animals — APA Style and Chicago Style
In contrast to AP style, the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA style) and The Chicago Manual of Style (Chicago style) both say that animals should be referred to as that or which, and neither offers an exemption for named animals.2
Peabody, the dog that loves to wear outfits, won the costume contest.
The hamster, which loves carrots, started squeaking when its owner came in from the garden.
An Alternative Provided by Merriam-Webster
Some animal lovers may be disheartened by the fact that the style guides mentioned above show a strong preference to reserve who for humans. However, if you aren’t following a specific style guide for work, school, or publishing purposes, you can still confidently use the relative pronoun who when referencing animals—because Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary says you can.3 Yes, Merriam-Webster’s third entry for who mentions animals and includes a canine example. Go, dogs! And cats…and turtles…and eagles…and bears…
(Nevertheless, cautious writers and editors should note that our other primary dictionaries for American English, Webster’s New World College Dictionary and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, don’t extend the use of who to animals.4)
- The Associated Press Stylebook 2019 (New York: Associated Press, 2019) 280, 315.
- Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, 7th ed. (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2020) 4.19; The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017) 5.56.
- Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed., s.v. “who.”
- Webster’s New World College Dictionary, 5th ed., s.v. “who”; The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th ed., s.v. “who.”